Brave Conversations with LCW Podcast
Join the global conversation on diversity, equity, inclusion, and culture!
LCW is collaborating with experts across industries to share stories and insights that shine a light on the many ways organizations are building the mindsets, skills, and systems to succeed in a culturally diverse world.
Meet Your Host: Larry Baker
Decoded: Unpacking Coded Language in the Workplace
“You’re too bossy,” “you’re lacking professionalism,” “you’re just not a cultural fit”—when left unchecked, sometimes language has a much larger impact than intended. But what’s motivating this behavior, and how should you respond?
“Coded language” refers to phrases that could be potentially masking bias and often signal cultural dissonance. Join LCW Lead Facilitator Larry Baker (he/him) and experts from the cross-cultural and DEI space as they break down what coded language really means. Each episode, we’ll unpack a new phrase by sharing personal stories and lessons learned, how it relates to larger systemic issues, and tips to help you navigate unconscious bias in your communities and workplace.
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Reflections from Two Women Business Owners
Published on: March 16, 2023
Inspired by the 2023 theme for International Women’s Day—Embracing Equity—we’re taking a look inward to highlight the lived experiences of our diverse team.
In this live-streamed episode of Brave Conversations with LCW, Host Larry Baker was joined by LCW colleagues Alisa Kolodizner (LCW Co-Owner & Managing Partner) and Tamara Thorpe (LCW Principal Consultant, Real Mentors Network Founder) as they reflected on their entrepreneurial journeys—including motivations for beginning their career path, barriers they faced as women in business, and takeaways for supporting women colleagues.
Show Notes & Highlights
05:12 Tamara shares her experience growing up in an entrepreneurial family
07:50 Alisa tells us how immigrating to the United States shaped her journey
11:22 Alisa and Tamara discuss the importance of having mentors and a support network when starting out
14:25 Tamara on embracing unknowns on your constantly evolving business
17:36 Tamara speaks to the challenges of being a Black woman entrepreneur
21:39 Alisa reflects on her desire not to be a minority in her business
26:29 Alisa shares stories about the importance of resilient women role models
29:49 Tamara advocates for supportive networks for women as a mentor herself
32:58 Tamara debunks myths about starting a business
35:16 Alisa explains the importance in advocating for yourself through different parts of your journey
Larry Baker: Hello everyone, and welcome to Brave Conversations with LCW Live. I am your host, Larry Baker. I use the pronouns of he and him, and I am absolutely thrilled to welcome you to this special edition of our livestream series as we are joining you on International Women’s Day.
To share some reflections, we two women business owners and entrepreneurs that we are so lucky to have as part of our very own LCW team. Now, for those of you that may be unfamiliar with LCW, we are a global DE&I training, consulting, and translation firm that partners with organizations to help them develop global mindset and to help them develop their skills and their systems to succeed in a culturally diverse world.
Today I am extremely fortunate to be joined by Alisa Kolodizner—who is our co-owner and managing partner and the founder of Cordelia Capital—and Tamara Thorpe—who is a principal consultant with LCW and Real Mentors Network founder. I will have them do a more formal introduction in a moment.
But before we do that, we want to take a moment to highlight the chat function that’s available across today’s livestream so that you can give your reactions and questions throughout the entire conversation. Please do us a favor and put your comments in the chat, and we will answer them throughout the conversation.
So with that being said, I’m going to start by having Alisa give us an introduction and then Tamara, you can jump right in afterwards.
Alisa Kolodizner: Thank you, Larry. Hello, everyone. My name is Alisa Kolodizner. I am the managing partner/co-CEO of LCW, and I’m also the founder of Cordelia Capital.
A little bit about myself… I became an entrepreneur fairly early in my life. I was about five years old when I first started selling bracelets; I didn’t realize that that journey was a journey that I can take at that age. I went to work in corporate America right after school and then went back to the entrepreneurial journey a little over three years ago now.
Larry Baker: Awesome. Thank you so much, Alisa. Tamara, you’re up. Please do an introduction and tell us a little bit about yourself.
Tamara Thorpe: Thanks so much, Larry, for the invitation to be here for International Women’s Day. As you have said, my name is Tamara Thorpe, and I am one of the principal consultants at LCW.
But I am also someone who’s been a longtime entrepreneur. My most recent venture is the Real Mentors Network. Mentoring is something that I’m particularly passionate about, and so we’ve built a platform that brings mentors and mentees together. All of this work is really built upon the work that I’ve done in the last 20 years around building thriving teams and healthy organizations. I’m really helping organizations explore concepts of culture to create thriving cultures and productive and effective leaders.
And so I’m happy to be here today to talk about my own entrepreneurial journey.
Larry Baker: Fantastic, Tamara. Thank you and Alisa for being with us today, and I really wanna dig into that last statement that you just made, Tamara. So since you are here and excited to share your entrepreneurial story, I’m gonna ask that you kick us off and maybe tell us some things that might have motivated you to have this mindset. Tell us a little bit about your story and then some of those motivations, if you would.
Tamara Thorpe: Thanks. It was a blessing and a curse; I grew up with parents who were entrepreneurs, and so that exposed me at a very early age to what it’s like to have an idea and realize it into a business and also know that that experience comes with highs and lows.
But I think for me, growing up seeing that exemplified in both my mom and my dad were really modeled for me what I have loved about being an entrepreneur: the creativity and the innovation and the autonomy and independence. For me, it was always a matter of having my own business. It wasn’t will I, it was really just a matter of when.
When I was doing my undergraduate—while I thought about all the possible careers—I had always had a vision for being an entrepreneur. So even in my first career when I was teaching I had also started my own event planning business. And that was really the beginning of always kinda having a side hustle.
Then it was in 2011 that I really made a commitment to having a business that I was focusing all my efforts and energy into, and that’s when I started my work as the Millennials Mentor, where I was providing coaching and training to really support the next generation of leaders.
But it really was that inspiration of having entrepreneurs model that journey. I know for myself, I feel like I have of been very prepared for the highs and lows that come with being an entrepreneur.
Larry Baker: Tamara, thank you so much for that insight. You reiterated the old cliche that “how can they be it if they don’t see it?” So because that was modeled for you by your parents, it was almost like you said, not if but when you were going to become an entrepreneur. Thank you so much for sharing.
Alisa, it’s your turn. I know you touched upon it a little bit earlier how as a very young person you were selling bracelets, but let’s dig into your entrepreneurial story. Tell us what motivated you to become an entrepreneur.
Alisa Kolodizner: Sure, and thank you as well for asking that question and for also holding space for this conversation.
It’s interesting because it took me a little bit to truly pinpoint where did that entrepreneurial influence come from. My family and I immigrated from the former Soviet Union. I came here as a child, and that really was true entrepreneurship. My family came to the United States, each of them with a suitcase, and they started over.
I didn’t, growing up, identify that that was the terminology associated to entrepreneurship until further along, but what was interesting is I always observed it. So my grandmother raised me; I watched her be an entrepreneur in the United States, where she had to start over. She was a pediatrician in the former Soviet Union and came here, didn’t speak the language, and had to make means while my mom went to school and my dad was working full-time so that they could gimme a better life.
I started working pretty early on just because I wanted to be independent. I wanted to be able to provide for myself—didn’t wanna be a burden I guess is the best way to sometimes think of it. And so I had multiple jobs as early as the age of five, and then during school I used to have a couple jobs while I was going to school. At one point in college I had five different jobs, and then when I graduated, I learned about the aspect of having multiple revenue streams.
That’s actually how I started knowingly being an entrepreneur, right out of school. A friend and I started a consulting organization focused on multiple revenue streams, and at the same time I also entered financial services. It was interesting because I started my career in corporate, but at the same time also started my entrepreneurial journey.
Unfortunately had to stop the entrepreneurial one for a bit, just because working in the financial service industry, there’s quite a bit of what you can and cannot do. But what I wanted to do was always how can I maintain the ability to also look at multiple revenue streams and having more control over what my day-to-day looks like.
Larry Baker: Okay, awesome. Thank you so much, Alisa, for sharing that for me.
Now, both of you gave me some really nice stories, and it seems like everything was so smooth and it just ran so effectively. But I’m pretty sure that there were some things that each of you wishes that you would’ve known at the very beginning of your journey.
Before I open that door up to you to respond to that, I’m gonna ask Alisa to kick it off first, and then Tamara, you can follow up. What were some of those things, Alisa, that you really wish that someone would’ve told you when you started out being an entrepreneur?
Alisa Kolodizner: Well, I don’t have to say this, but it’s tough, right? It’s interesting because I did not grow up knowingly with entrepreneurs, so this aspect of being an entrepreneur wasn’t really spoken about within my household. It took me some time to gain the confidence to take together my skillsets and my passion in order to truly be an entrepreneur full-time.
You would say that, “Well, you started so early. You were five, right? But then you walked towards a different direction.” And it was always there—it was always something that I was very passionate about. I just didn’t necessarily know that my skillset and my passion can come together, and I could be an entrepreneur.
What I would’ve loved to have told my younger self was to take that chance and to find folks around you that not only support you but can also be there for you, be mentors for you, provide you examples so that you can fulfill your passion.
So that’s what I ended up finding, but it came when I consciously made the effort. It wasn’t right in front of me. It may have been, but until you speak it into being real, you’re not going to surround yourself or find the folks in your network to support you and to propel you into that journey. That’s what learned a little bit further.
Larry Baker: Awesome. Thank you so much, Alisa.
So Tamara, this is probably right in your wheelhouse because I think that Alisa has set you up really nicely. She said, “Boy, I really wish that I would’ve known about mentoring relationships.” So even though it was innate in your upbringing, what were some of the things that you wished that you would’ve known very early in your journey becoming an entrepreneur?
Tamara Thorpe: Yeah. I appreciate Alisa sharing that cuz I think one of the things I did know was that I didn’t have to go it alone, and I was able to surround myself with small advisory groups, which were friends, colleagues, mentors, people who could help me and support me through that journey.
And that has been so instrumental. Sometimes when we set out to go on an entrepreneurial journey, we have our own ideas and we might be fearful to reach out for help, but—as Alisa mentioned—having that support makes all the difference in the world.
But the things that I didn’t know, there were three. First was that there were really things that I was going to have to learn. There were things that I didn’t know that I was going to have to learn. Basic accounting, that’s not in my wheelhouse. That was something that I had to really go out and learn, and then eventually learn that there’s only so much I need to know and can do. Then eventually, you hire an expert. Knowing how much you need to know and the right time to bring in an expert, that is always a challenge but an important part of the process.
So knowing what I don’t know, that was one of the challenges and a part of the ongoing journey, which is also the second thing. I think the second thing that has been really helpful to me was embracing the constant evolution of your entrepreneurship or your business. As we sometimes think of it very static, you might start with an initial idea, but over time that idea will evolve and grow and shift and change. And being able to embrace that I think is really important.
I think one of the hardest or most painful entrepreneurial journeys I learned was how to talk about money and set my worth, and I think that’s one of the things that women more often than not are not taught to talk about money or evaluate their expertise and their experience numerically. Early in my consulting, I was really undercutting myself, and it wasn’t until a client told me one of the reasons they didn’t consider a proposal was because I was charging too little. And because I was charging so little, they didn’t put value on what I was offering, and that was an extremely expensive and painful loss.
But it taught me that I had to learn to talk about money. I had to learn to identify my own worth and value and be comfortable asking for what I believe I’m worth, even if people push back.
Larry Baker: Yeah. Tamara, thank you so much for sharing that insight, but your comment has led me to wanna ask you to take it to a different level of intersectionality, if you will. Because I want you to talk a little bit more about those challenges and barriers in your journey, but I want you to put on the lens of the additional responsibility as being a Black woman entrepreneur. So can you touch upon that just a little bit more in regards to your challenges?
Tamara Thorpe: Yeah, I think it’s been an interesting aspect of the journey. Initially, as I said, because I had parents who were entrepreneurs, I never really thought about what might be external forces at play that could impact my experience. Once I started integrating myself into the kind of entrepreneurial ecosystem that exists both within my community and across the United States—right into that world of venture capitalists and startup funds—I realized that that space is not an entirely inclusive space, and that as I was pitching business ideas, pitching programs that getting my voice heard and recognized was extremely challenging.
There are a lot more resources out there for white male entrepreneurs and that they are far more likely to get the kind of credibility or benefit of the doubt for investors than women are, and then women of color, right? So when we look at the numbers in the startup space, we know that Black women are the least likely to receive VC, right? I mean, the number of pitch competitions that I submitted applications for and was denied, denied, denied. And I can speak in my own community, I could go to fives startup pitch events and see the same five guys pitching their business and winning money every time and having people say, “Tamara, you’re great. We love your business. We love what you’re doing,” but it never showed up in terms of stage-time, facetime, financial investment.
Today, I think we’re seeing some changes. Google Startups now has an incredible new startup program specifically for Black founders. We’re seeing things like Glamazon and the Glammies that are creating a virtual platform for Black business owners.
I guess saying “unexpected” feels a little naive, right? But certainly it has always felt like there’s tons of money out there that lots of folks are getting, so it was really quite surprising to me that the amount of effort into building those relationships, creating those networks… eventually it paid off for me, certainly. But there were a lot of doors that were closed with no explanation that over time, I realized I need to start really honing in and building relationships that were gonna advance my career cuz there were a lot of doors that just weren’t open.
Larry Baker: Awesome. Thank you so much. I appreciate that, Tamara. So Alisa, I’m gonna ask you to jump in. Same type of question, but here’s one thing that I do want to share with our audience: we understand that there isn’t a universal experience for women in business, right? These are just both of your perspectives when it comes to your journey. So we know that’s the framework of where your answer is coming from.
We appreciate the diverse perspectives with this particular question when we talk about what are some of the challenges or barriers that you faced, Alisa, as you went on your journey.
Alisa Kolodizner: Yeah, thank you. And Tamara, as you were speaking, it was reminding me of some of the experiences that I saw when I was raising capital.
So as the owner of Cordelia Capital, part of what I was doing is looking to gain investors, right? So gain investors that would invest into my acquisition, and what was interesting is… well, the first thing was all of the investors that I talked to were white men, and it was very difficult for me to find women folks of color to be my investors. And that’s actually one of the first times outside of financial services—where I spent the majority of my career prior to starting Cordelia Capital—where I started seeing the problem continue to persist.
And so I found myself in many different rooms where I honestly had to also say “no.” I knew that the terms that I was being given were not fair for me. I came into my entrepreneurial journey with Cordelia specifically at a more confident point in my life where I knew my worth, and so when I was being given terms that did not reflect what I knew my worth was I said “no.”
And there were also instances where I was told that investors weren’t interested in me because I wasn’t comfortable with what they were sharing. I wasn’t comfortable with becoming their employee. When I thought of the word “entrepreneur,” it wasn’t to be a minority owner of my own organization—it was to continue to be a majority owner. And what ended up happening for me with Cordelia Capital is the money that I raised was actually all from investors that were individuals.
So I thought initially that I had to go find it in venture capital, I had to go find it with the hedge fund, and what ended up happening is I realized after quite a few meetings is those weren’t the terms that I was comfortable with.
Larry Baker: Wow.
Alisa Kolodizner: Those weren’t necessarily the audience that had seen me before and what I was capable of. And so I moved on, and I moved on to working with investors that were individuals. And so all of my investors within Cordelia Capital, they aren’t companies. These are folks that either are in financial services or I had had the opportunity of working with or were mentors to me throughout my career. I’m very fortunate that that that’s where my journey has taken me.
But it took some time. It took some time to get to the point where I built up that confidence. Prior to Cordelia Capital, I did work in financial services where I was the majority of the time the only woman in the room. And I coached financial advisors, I coached companies, independent advisory firms that were owned by white men, and I was typically the only woman in the room.
So it gave me this understanding that not only is this a statistic that exists, it’s factual and I’m living it. I came to the point where I wanted to change it, and so I wanted to be part of the solution and how to create spaces for everyone to be able to have the foundation to succeed.
So that’s a little bit about the journey and where it took me.
Larry Baker: Yeah. So, Alisa, I know that you mentioned that your family migrated here. Were there some specific challenges having English being a second language that kinda impacted your entrepreneurial journey? If so, can you kind of elaborate on that for me a little bit?
Alisa Kolodizner: Sure. I appreciate you asking that. It’s interesting because growing up I had quite a few experiences where I noticed how my grandmother was treated and my mom as well because they both have accents and how that impacted them. But also I grew up watching the resilience, and so my grandmother—and I always bring up the story cause it means a lot to me—but I didn’t get into a school that was a lottery system, and it was intended for more affluent folks in that neighborhood. And so my grandmother took me by the hand and took me to the school, brought my report card, went to the principal and said, “This is my granddaughter. I raised her. She’s a straight-A student. You need to let her into your school.”
And that experience really shaped me. And just in general, the way I observed her is just that, and that resilience really is critical in the life of entrepreneur. Being an entrepreneur, a lot of times you are walking down a path that is the first time you’ve walked through it and potentially the first time that anyone within your family or network has either. And so being comfortable with the unknown, is, is really important.
And so for me personally growing up with English being my second language, I didn’t speak English ‘til I was five, and watching that resilience within my own family—with my grandmother, with my mom who started over and became a doctor of pharmacy in the United States—and some of the experiences that both of them had either shared with me or I was with them when those experiences occurred.
They really strengthened my own confidence in my own abilities because I’m fortunate to have two very strong women that really were mentors to me. That definitely shaped my own ability, my confidence in taking the biggest risk, and that risk is the most rewarding on myself.
Larry Baker: Yeah. And Alisa, thank you so much for sharing that personal story. That perfectly embodies the whole concept of: if they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring the table. And you brought the chair too! Your grandma said, “No, no, no, no. I don’t know what you think. my granddaughter belongs here.” I love that type of support and someone to really believe in you.
So Tamara, it’s your turn. I want you to talk to us about… we talk a lot about people talking the talk but not being able to walk the walk. I want to hear from you, and of course Alisa as well, what can we do to support our women colleagues?
Tamara Thorpe: Yeah, as I said, we see a growing number of opportunities and platforms for women in business, yet it’s still quite small, right? If we’re looking in the world of investment and venture capitalists and where funds are going, the most recent stat is that out of all the funds, only 2.7% go to women and less than 1% go to women of color.
Now as bleak as that may seem, I think that there’s a certain amount of bootstrapping that folks can do. We live in a time where people can be scrappy and agile and don’t need a lot of investment. I have built the Real Mentors Network with zero investment. It has come from investing my own funds, identifying my own resources, and being—what’s the word—innovative, and thoughtful, and planning.
Larry Baker: Resourceful.
Tamara Thorpe: Yeah, resourceful and taking the time. And part of the reason that I’m able to do that is because of the incredible network of people that I have around me. I know that both Alisa and I’ve used the word “mentoring,” but I cannot overstate how important it is to have mentors. And when you go to build a business, to take that idea and try to convert it into something, you can monetize a business that you can own and be proud of that having a network of people who are gonna support you in decision making, in ideating, in challenging your thinking and ideas to push you to think beyond what the original scope of your idea may have been that really helps you advance.
That’s really critical, and one of the reasons that I’ve created the Real Mentors Network is because people go, “Having a mentor is great. Where am I gonna get a mentor?” And I always say to folks, “You know, mentors are all around you. They’re people you’re already connected to.” And sometimes it’s a matter of formalizing that relationship and saying, “Hey, I’m about to take on this project, and I’m gonna really need some mentoring. Can I rely on you for the next three months, six months, to give me support and insights. And sometimes it is a matter of reaching out to people you don’t know. Before I built the Real Mentors Network, I’ve relied on platforms like LinkedIn to connect with other professionals who are doing the things I want to be doing and to find out how did they do it. How did they get started?
I think very often people think a couple of things—they have myths that “I can’t possibly create a business cuz it already exists.” That’s a myth. Think of all the places where you can go and get a hamburger. People are going to continue to make good hamburgers and sell hamburgers. You don’t have to have the only hamburger, you just have to have a good hamburger, right? And so you don’t need a completely unique idea—you just need a good product, a good version of it.
Also people believe that if they tell someone that that person’s gonna run away with their idea, and so they’ll hold on to their entrepreneurial idea. And that’s also a myth. Very rarely does that happen, right? More often than not, people support you in your ideas, and it really is inviting people to be a part of that journey.
And for us, when people come to us to be able to say, “Yes, I wanna support, I wanna help. I’m willing to be there and support you,” I think that there’s a real opportunity.
That also being said, there are growing programs to support women and particularly women of color in entrepreneurship, and I think that there’s an opportunity for us as people in our community to support those platforms.
Larry Baker: Yeah, absolutely. Yep.
Tamara Thorpe: To support those platforms either by going to their events, spreading the word about them, letting folks know that they exist. Because that sense of building community—whether you’re doing it locally in your network, whether you’re doing it nationally, globally, or virtually— having a network is really what is going to make a difference.
Larry Baker: Yeah. Absolutely it echoes with me, Tamara, when you talk about some of the challenges within our community is support a Black-owned business. It’s okay to do that, so I appreciate you sharing that insight.
Okay. Alisa, your turn. Tell us or tell the audience what can we do to support our women colleagues? What are your thoughts on that?
Alisa Kolodizner: Some of the things that I wanted to double-click on a little bit more is choosing who is your mentor. What I learned throughout my entrepreneurial journey is those mentors will also change. So as your journey evolves, as you are at different points in what your needs are, your mentors may change and that’s okay.
For me, a little bit to get comfortable with that—because initially I was so grateful that folks would be open to being mentors to me—it came to a point where I realized that sometimes the mentors that I started working with may become different as I go further down the entrepreneurial journey because everyone’s experiences are different. And depending on what my needs are as an entrepreneur, it’s okay to go to different people when you have different needs throughout that journey. So that’s one thing that I’ll state that I thought was very important throughout my journey.
Then the other one is, really being vocal about what you want. Because if you are not an advocate for yourself, if you are not stating, “Here’s what I’m looking to accomplish,” you can’t expect for people around you to know how to support you. And that was something that was really meaningful for me throughout my journey is that realization that unless I am making others aware of what I’m hoping to accomplish, they aren’t necessarily going to know how to support me and provide the resources that I may need—whether it’s introducing me to a mentor, which did happen when I started stating, “Here’s what I’m looking to accomplish.” It became, “Oh, let me introduce you to X, Y, and Z,” and I would take it from there. But if I hadn’t mentioned this was what I was looking to accomplish, it would’ve most likely not become an introduction to someone who did ultimately become a mentor to me.
The other piece I’ll state is it’s really important for folks to pursue what they’re both passionate about as well as finding that connection to their purpose, and people hear it. It’s when you are truly doing what is most meaningful to you. You state it into existence, right? You really talk about it more, and you’ll find yourself in that network. You will speak it into existence, I guess is one of the things that I’ve learned and thought through.
And then the last piece that I’ll state as well is the importance of follow up because I learned this earlier in my career. My skillset was always more so around sales. And so what I learned earlier in my career is the importance of follow up. Because you may have had the best conversation with someone and you may have stated exactly what you’re looking to accomplish, but after that conversation ended, they moved on with their day. And they moved on with what’s important to them in their day-to-day.
So if you are not following up, if you are not sending that email, encouraging that next conversation, asking that question, you can’t necessarily expect for someone to reach back out to you and express that interest. I would love for more folks to reach out to individuals to mentor, but what we also have to know as mentees that it is important to have those follow ups. It is important to always have those next steps because that is what will support you moving forward at the speed that you’d like. Instead of sitting there and waiting, it’s important also to proactively reach out.
Larry Baker: Awesome. Thank you so much, Alisa. Thank you so much, Tamara. This has been such an awesome conversation. I can’t think of a better way to kick off International Women’s Day, and I wanted to touch base with our audience just to let ’em know it doesn’t stop here.
We really hope that you take what you learned and share it with your friends, share it with your coworkers, even share it with family members, And if you want to know more about the Real Mentors Network, you can visit realmentors.net. If you want to partner with us at LCW to continue to have these conversations in your work, please absolutely let us know. You can contact LCW at languageandculture.com.
Thank you so much again for joining us, Alisa and Tamara. I think this has been a wonderful conversation, and I cannot wait to see what happens from this session. This has been Brave Conversations with LCW Live. Thank you so much. Thank you everyone.
Tamara Thorpe: Thank you, everyone.
Alisa Kolodizner: Thank you.
Supporting Colleagues of API Descent
Published on: November 28, 2022
The pandemic led to a challenging 24+ months for everyone but especially for people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent. With the recent rise in anti-AAPI hate crimes in the U.S. and the COVID turmoil that impacted India and other regions, there’s been an increased interest in allyship and resources to support this community. But has it been enough? What can these events teach us about being better allies?
Culture Moments Host Larry Baker (he/him) is joined by Reap-n-leap Coaching and Consulting Executive Coach and DEI & Culture Change Consultant Peyina Lin-Roberts (she/her) and Intercultural Consultant Jessica Shao (she/her), who share their lived experiences as people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent and what they believe are good first steps to better supporting this diverse community.
Show Notes & Highlights
7:59 Jessica and Peyina share events that impact their daily lives as Asian women
18:22 Peyina and Larry discuss how cultural difference is sometimes viewed as a threat
21:08 Peyina explains how racism pits marginalized communities against each other
27:02 The group analyzes cultural rifts that separate Black and Asian communities
36:25 Jessica describes the importance of empathy in allyship
39:31 Peyina points out the individual work behind authentic allyship
45:49 Peyina and Jessica share final thoughts and advice for DEI practitioners
Larry Baker: Hello, everyone, and welcome to the Culture Moments podcast. I’m your host, Larry Baker, and I am thrilled to have you join us for our second season called “Brave Conversations with LCW.” In these episodes, you’ll hear from a panel of guests from specific communities offering a range of perspectives on the past two years. We’ll hear about their own experiences as well as their insights on what has changed and, more importantly, what needs to change to move equity forward. As we all know, so much has shifted and changed over the past two years. And for many of us, we’re still in recovery from a very difficult 24 months.
On today’s episode of The Cultural Moments Podcast, we’ll be discussing what it means to be an ally for people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent. During 2021, anti-Asian hate crimes increased 339% across the United States, and remote Pacific countries and small islands face disproportionately high unemployment rates with limited access to production.
So what can these events teach us about being better allies, and what can we do to authentically support this community? To help us with this conversation, I’m joined by Peyina Lin-Roberts, who is an executive coach, DEO, and cultural change consultant at Reap-n-Leap Coaching and Consulting and Intercultural Consultant Jessica Shao, who will share their lived experiences as members of the Asian and Pacific Islander community. Welcome to the podcast today. What I’m gonna do is to quickly allow both of you to give a brief introduction to who you are and exactly what you do. Peyina, if you could start…
Peyina Lin-Roberts: Thank you, Larry. As Larry mentioned, I’m an executive coach and a diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant working with organizations to enable their culture change. Diversity, equity, and inclusion, or DEI, is also simultaneously about culture, right? How would I introduce myself? I’m a cisgender woman of Taiwanese descent who grew up in Guatemala and Costa Rica. Culturally, at some point in time I was more Tica— which is how you refer to Costa Rican—probably more Tica than Taiwanese culturally. Never quite ChaPeyina; ChaPeyina are the Guatemalan.
I’m also a mother and a wife in a mixed-race marriage, and my parents both lived in families that at some point experienced poverty of some form. My dad didn’t wear shoes to go to school, he would save his shoes so they wouldn’t get worn off and he’d put them on at school. My mom, at some point in time during her early adulthood, had to work multiple jobs to make ends meet right with the family. And I’m the first in my family to get a PhD, to marry outside of our race, and to be an executive coach and a DE consultant. I think there’s something about my sister who became a doctor… you know, maybe I should have been something of those expected roles.
What else? I think to know me, my belief system matters, and I truly believe that we can create a better world if we can embrace difference; challenge our assumptions, our blind spots; lead with heart and curiosity rather than judgment, and be open to evolving how we think, being in this constant willingness to develop ourselves. I think I will leave space for Jessica to introduce herself. I think there’s much more that I can share about, you know?
Larry Baker: No, that’s great. Thank you. That’s great, Peyina. Thank you so much. Jessica, how about you? Give us an introduction, and tell us who you are and what you do.
Jessica Shao: Yes, it’s hard to follow Peyina’s introduction. That was so robust and very, very fascinating. My name is Jessica Shao. I moved to the US with my family from rural China when I was at the age of close to 10, and we moved to San Francisco. I am what they considered a one-and-a-half generation Chinese American because I wasn’t born in the US, so I have quite a bit of connection still with the Chinese culture and in China, more than a typical Chinese American who is born here.
So my background… I’ve done some work in intercultural communication. I’m still trying to figure out what I do, Larry. My interest is in intercultural communications, and I’ve done some training with business managers whoare relocating overseas to China or Chinese managers coming to the US to talk to these managers about the different cultures and work cultures. My training is in international development, so I’ve lived in low-income countries and developing countries around the world working on poverty alleviation issues in different communities, mostly with Indigenous communities in parts of South America and in rural China. I’ve worked in the world of philanthropy, funding nonprofit organizations in the U.S. and sometimes overseas to work on issues around social justice.
Personally, I’m a mother of two young toddlers, and I’m in [what] I would say [is] considered intercultural marriage, although not interracial. My husband is Taiwanese American who grew up being immersed in the Taiwanese culture, and I am from the southern part of China in the Canton region or Guandong region, so I grew up being immersed in the Cantonese culture. We often have cultural clashes even though we are in the same race.
I’m really excited to be here, Larry. I’m really looking forward to the conversation that we’ll be having, to learning from you and from Peyina. I think it’s great that you guys are doing this and I’m privileged to be part of this conversation.
Larry Baker: Yeah, thanks so much for joining. And Jessica, FYI, when you’re married you tend to have cultural clashes even if it’s the same culture. Just as an FYI, to share that with you. (all laugh)
So I’m gonna start with you, Jessica, and I want you to think about the past two years, or past two years or so. What have been some of your most notable events impacting your daily lived experience?
Jessica Shao: There’s two that stand to mind. One is the Atlanta shooting of women of Asian descent who worked in massage parlors in Atlanta, and I think that was March in 2021. That was earth-shattering to me personally because as an Asian woman who goes to these massage parlors to get massages, I knew who these women are. I can picture who they are, and I get choked up even speaking about it. When I read the news, I couldn’t bear to read more in the details because personally it’s shaking me because that could have been me. I could have been one of those who just happened to be in the massage parlor and then got shot, or that could have been my mother. That’s something that’s still shaking me today as we speak, and it’s affecting me daily.
I think it’s more internal in the ways that it’s affecting me: internalizing what it means to be an Asian woman in the US and some of the stereotypes that I’ve long learned about in terms of stereotyping women to be submissive, to be more sexually promiscuous. I know that we’ve seen these in Hollywood movies back in the days, and for this to happen in 2021, which is—whoever can do the math—how many hundred years since 1860? It’s earth-shattering. It’s a couple of hundred years, and I feel like we’ve made so much progress as an Asian American community at large in terms of facing really covert discrimination, yet a lot of this is still bubbling inside the American psyche. And it’s becoming more overt to me. Being able to process that is very hard, Larry, and it’s still affecting me today. A lot of this is psychological.
A series of events as you’ve heard in the media… there’s harassments and abuse of elderly Chinese men and Chinese ladies in the Chinatown community in San Francisco and in Oakland, which is the Bay Area where I live. That’s near and dear to my heart to see these 80-year-old elders, who are well respected in our in our culture. Elders are definitely people that we look up to and we care about, and to see them just get beat up randomly in the street in broad daylight. That is pretty shaking, and I know that some people in my community, in the Chinese community in the Bay Area, are afraid to go out to the streets. We see this in the media so much. We are afraid about our grandparents going out to the streets. For me personally, my grandparents passed away before the pandemic. I don’t personally worry about them, but when I do hear of these incidents, I do think about grandparents of my friends or in my community.
So these are two incidents that really stand out to me, and how does it affect me and my lived experiences as I reflect on that? In the beginning of the pandemic, my husband and I were afraid to identify ourselves as Chinese ethnicity in the public. I didn’t even feel comfortable going out to do grocery shopping. Outside of the pandemic the scariness of that, even if it was safe to go I didn’t feel safe to openly identify myself as being a Chinese woman because we would hear stories of people in a nearby community where I live where Asian people would get spit on in broad daylight. I would not feel comfortable decorating my house during Chinese New Year because I don’t wanna be targeted as a Chinese family with any hate crimes or potential hate crimes. And still today, I don’t feel comfortable doing that: identifying myself in Chinese to the broad public. So those are the experiences that affect me daily.
Larry Baker: Yeah, and Jessica, so many of the things that you mentioned just really echo and resonate with a lot of the civil unrest that’s been going on. More focused since 2020, but in the reality—just like you mentioned—it’s been going on way before that, right? You mentioned 1860. I can refer back to 1619.
Jessica Shao: Yeah.
Larry Baker: So those similar experiences still resonate today in 2022. Thank you so much for that. So Peyina, you’re up. Tell me a couple of things that have been the most impactful for you. If you want to go back the past two years, that’s totally fine, but just talk to me about some of those notable experiences.
Peyina Lin-Roberts: Mm-hm. Definitely COVID 19 being a disease that people just directly associated with Chinese and therefore—because, you know, “all Asians look alike”—to all Asians regardless of what race or what nationality you are. Personally, I was at the time serving at a board that not enough… nobody had knowledge in March, 2020 about what the pandemic would do. Because my sister is a doctor in Taiwan and had to deal firsthand with the swine flu, she was warning us ahead of time, “In Taiwan people are already closing borders X, Y, and Z. Be careful, I heard there’s a case in Washington.” And so we were extremely careful.
But being an Asian person, a Taiwanese person, and trying to play by fiduciary duty and warn the board that we shouldn’t hold public event wasn’t so well received. Just personally, the credibility that I had was like none. I don’t know that that’s necessarily associated with me being Taiwanese or Asian, but there was something about being the face of that people associated with the disease. What are people gonna think of that?
In addition in those times, wearing a mask is something that’s quite common in Taiwan. People go out on the streets, they wear a mask even when there’s no pandemic because of pollution because of respect. If you’re sick, you kind of wanna protect others, and all people wear it because of pollution. But I live in Seattle, and at the time we didn’t know that outdoors is less [transmittable]. We just thought, “Let’s protect ourselves.” We wear a mask, and we would get people staring at us because it wasn’t common yet.
There was also an incident where I could sense that people had slowed down their car in order to do something. I don’t know, but I’m very aware of that: maybe throwing something at me or that kind of thing. I turned around, and they slowed down and then moved on. Since then I basically, during the early times of the pandemic, did not wanna go out and walk alone. I had to ask my husband to come along with me. So that’s one of the incidents.
And of course related to that, just like Jessica was sharing, is the hate crimes against API. I think it was in January of this year that a woman was pushed into the New York subway and died straight there. At the time I had a contract with an organization in the east coast collaborating with other diversity, equity, inclusion practitioners on offering kinda organization-wide culture change and might have required me to travel to New York. For the first time I was like, “Hey, maybe I need to go take martial arts.” (laughs) I looked up what’s the most effective martial arts because I’m thinking if someone pushes you from behind, you won’t know. Because of that thought of “this could be something that can happen to me,” I had regretted in the past—when I had the option of choosing between yoga and martial arts—choosing yoga.
So these are things that personally have affected me because being in the diversity, equity, and inclusion space particularly, I’m aware what makes us humans treat others as someone that we can exclude. It’s when we don’t see people being equal, when we see people as being a threat. And yet there I was. I am the threat. That just felt viscerally stronger than any sort of exclusion or racism that I experienced growing up, which is different. It’s like a mild exclusion because “you’re not one of us” versus “you are the virus,” right?
Larry Baker: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Wow. Peyina, that just really resonates with so many times where I will walk into a building or into a store and just automatically have people look at me differently because I’m a pretty big guy. And when people see me—big, Black guy late at night—even if it’s the most innocent trip, like going to the grocery store. Who does not go to the grocery store? But if it’s late at night, or even in certain situations mid-evening, that you go into this store, you can literally feel the atmosphere shift. It’s almost as if “what happened?” I’m looking around thinking, “Am I in danger?” But in reality, they’re looking at me because they feel like they’re in danger. That whole phenomenon of having an entire environment change just because of your presence, that really resonates with me as part of my experience just walking around in this space. I definitely appreciate both of your insights in regards to that.
Let’s move from your experiences, and maybe you can share with us some ways that you’ve noticed how these events and some other major events over the past couple of years have been impacting other people of Asian or Pacific Islander descent. Peyina, if you could start, and then Jessica. We’re gonna kinda rotate it that way.
Peyina Lin-Roberts: Sure thing. I’ll share some things that I observed that really, really hit core. So I live in Seattle, and one time I was walking in downtown Seattle and I saw a rally with like lots of Chinese characters and people of an older generation—you know, you can see the white hair and the gray hair, so a generation above me. I just assumed this was like a “Stop Asian Hate” type of thing. Then when I looked closer to the characters—because I do read Chinese characters and there’s was also English—my jaw dropped to the floor because what this was about was Taiwanese Americans or non-Chinese Asians doing a rally to clarify that the virus did not come from them. That they are not the Chinese that the virus came from. That they’re the good Chinese and that the virus came from the other, the Chinese from mainland China. And that hit core because isn’t that what racism does to us?
Larry Baker: Yeah, separates us.
Peyina Lin-Roberts: Racism is a system where there is one group at the highest of the hierarchy, one group at the lower hierarchy, and then those who are in between will do whatever they can so that they’re not at the lower hierarchy. Absolutely. This is what the racism and structures of oppression does: it pits people who are marginalized, who are not the highest privilege, against each other because if they’re not aware about the impact that they’re having on each other, they’re gonna be fighting against each other to climb up the ladder of privilege.
I mean, I know that cause I do these trainings, and yet I hadn’t seen it person. And the Taiwanese Americans and the Chinese American thing was right there in my face. It changed back to then what really motivated me. to clarify for me that I could not just be continuing to solidify my commitment to work in solidarity against anti-Blackness. That I also needed to simultaneously be in spaces to both create safe spaces for API folks but also know that in the API folks that are experiencing this, we needed to elevate more that we’re all swimming in the same waters professionally, if you will.
Larry Baker: What you’re describing to me, Peyina, is something very similar to—I think it was a book—”crabs in a barrel.” You know how crabs act when somebody gets the opportunity to get out, and they don’t really get out because another crab is bringing them down. That whole dynamic that you were talking about, how certain groups in the AAPI were saying, “We’re not those people, so don’t judge us because they’re not us.” I think that that is so unique within your community because forever it seems like they used the AAPI community against other minority groups, saying that this was the model minority group. “See how they were able to come over here, and they were able to accomplish all these things? Why can’t you—Black people or Hispanics or whatever group—why can’t you be more like Asian Americans?” And it’s that rift that you’re talking about, that we’re all swimming in the same ocean as people of color. That unity is something we tend to overlook because we’re so caught up in saying “we’re not like them, so don’t look at us like that.” And it even happens within our own culture. That whole subculture within AAPI, that exists within the Black culture, that exists within the Hispanic culture… it definitely resonates with me, so thank you so much for sharing.
Peyina Lin-Roberts: May I add something as well? Cuz you brought up something…
Larry Baker: Yes.
Peyina Lin-Roberts: I also see good things happen, though. One of the communities that I joined is called the Black-Asian Alliance Network. These are started by individuals who are mixed-race individuals and who are in this constant tension amongst themselves because, as we know, historically the Black and Asian community have been pit against each other because of the same phenomenon that you were describing. They know that the work starts with them if they have the mixed-race within them. I just wanted to also elevate the solidarity and the work that is happening at the same time that other things are like Peyina said.
Larry Baker: Absolutely. As if we don’t have enough going on, right? Jessica, I’m gonna give you opportunity to hop in here. Tell me, talk to me, expand it. You talked about it personally. I want you, if you can, give me a little bit of expansion on others and how these events may have impacted them.
Jessica Shao: Honestly, I’ve been a mom. [It] was my biggest identity in the past few years, so I haven’t been out and about in the community and taking leadership roles in the community. So what I know is really just based on word-of-mouth and what I see in the Chinese media. I live in the San Francisco Bay area, and as I mentioned earlier, there are hate crimes against the Asian American community specifically targeting Chinese people in Chinatown. Unfortunately, I do hear stories of this tension between the Black and the Chinese community exacerbated through the pandemic because [the] pandemic has caused a lot of economic wounds on many communities, and Black communities bear a lot of it as well. People in my community see a lot of violence perpetrated by the black community, and that exacerbated this myth of the stereotype of Black people within the Chinese community. Mm-This is something that, for me, I’ve tried to reconcile with and tried to find a space for me to know what to do. How do I create this allyship, and how do we go and explore in the two different communities and converge or even just have a deeper understanding?
In San Francisco, where my family lives, it’s very closely connected with the Black community with public housing, so there’s a lot of incidents where these two communities collide. Unfortunately, it’s also where the Chinese community in San Francisco also see shootings or see robberies. And it just reinforces what they hear in the media in front of their eyes. Especially in the pandemic where we don’t go anywhere and all we get is what you hear from the media, this fear is growing, and the tension, I feel like, is forever there.
Larry Baker: Yeah, and like we said earlier, it was like almost like it was by design to pit these two groups against one another. To make them natural adversaries, if you will. To make it that much more challenging to engage in conversations with each culture. Because I know from my perspective from being a part of the Black community that a lot of the concern focuses around economics. And here’s what I mean by that: you can go into, I would say, 90% of Black or African American communities, and you’ll find some type of AAPI business in those communities. Flip that around, and I would dare to say if you find 10% of Black or African American businesses in the AAPI community… so I think at some level, the economic reciprocity is a conversation that could be influencing these negative feelings.
And when you are part of an oppressed community and they keep telling you that this culture is the model minority, you need to be like them, when we make the effort to do those things in those communities, it’s not reciprocated. It’s like we have that opening in our communities, but the economic opportunities aren’t reciprocated in the AAP community. And again, we’ve said this at the beginning: none of us are a monolith. We are not monoliths. We do not speak on behalf of the millions of individuals in the AAPI community, and I do not speak on behalf of the millions of Blacks in our community. But these are some of the conversations, from my experience, that I hear that if we start to have conversations about economic reciprocity, I think that that will begin have people at least come to the table to address the greater concerns. Now, again, that is Larry Baker’s words. Please don’t say, “Well, Larry said…” No, no, no, no, no. That was just my interpretation from my experience, and it goes right along to what you were saying earlier.
But yes, great conversation because that rift, if you will, it appears that it’s always been there. That they really made that focused, concentrated effort to pit the AAPI community against the Black community really to fight civil rights. I really feel like that was at the heart of the matter that says, “Why do Black people need civil rights when the a AAPI community, they’ve come over and they’ve been able to be successful without civil rights?” Fundamentally that’s just not the facts, right? But that’s, again, Larry’s take. Please don’t take that to the bank and say, “Well, this is what Larry said.”
Jessica Shao: Yeah. I think another thing that is not as tangible that I see rising in my community here and there is just the rising fear that’s not just fear of getting coronavirus but fear of being who you are and fear of going out to the public. And I see that not just in my family, but in people that I know. I hear it in the community, and I feel like that’s the biggest virus that we have to battle against: the fear. And how do we make it so that we know it’s fabricated? It’s intentional. That fear is a tool…
Larry Baker: It absolutely is!
Jessica Shao: … for certain groups to remain in power over another. I think maybe I’m jumping into what we wanna do. I feel like as part of this work in bringing diversity and inclusion into the table and making it daily life… It’s not just a one-off event that you would talk about or one-off conversation but how do we do this and how do we address this virus of fear. I think that’s both physical and internal and psychological. So as someone who is advocating for inclusivity, I think I would like to figure out how to do that and how to address this powerful tool of fear when it comes to racial justice.
Larry Baker: Yeah, that’s a great point. Jessica, like you said, you were leading me into that next question, so I’m glad that you went there. I just wanna shape it because you started to touch on… What does authentic allyship look like as opposed to performative allyship, or what do people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent need most to feel supported?
Jessica Shao: I think about this question, and I think about this fact that Chinese American has been around since 1860, and now we’re in 2022 and we’re still grappling with these issues and how deep-rooted, how pervasive, um, these stereotypes roots from the ground and how long it lasts. And also the risk and the— how should I say this?—the harmfulness of a single story about any people, any race, any culture. For me personally, as I reflect on these issues, and thinking about what can we do to reverse this pervasiveness to slowly establish these understandings across different cultures and communities… I think it’s really leaning in as an individual to hear the stories of others who are different from you. So learning about my neighbor who have a completely different set of backgrounds and who they are.
For me, it’s not so much from a macro level, from an organizational level, or from a nation what designed policies. But even as individuals, we can affect so much change from our own acts and from individual acts of just leaning into, if you have in your orbits, people of Asian descent. Simple access to just learning about who they are. “How do you say your name? What does your name mean, if there’s a meaning?” It’s something that seems very mundanely simple, but when I hear that, I feel like I belong. Larry, when I hear it from you, who wants to learn how to pronounce my name, I feel like, “Oh wow, he cares!” And that’s the strongest form of allyship—is showing that you care. Even though you don’t receive the same experiences and you don’t have the same lived experiences, you have empathy. I think for me, that’s the most authentic allyship one can have with the Asian community.
Larry Baker: Thank you so much for that, Jessica. Peyina, hop in there. I know you have some insight about, you know, “Let’s be authentic. Let’s not be performative.” Because we all have our months, right? Everybody wants to advertise during our [heritage] months and put up their banners during our months, but to me that’s purely performative. To me, that’s all about capitalism. So, Peyina, talk to me. What does it look like, in your opinion, that would move from that and would be viewed as authentic?
Peyina Lin-Roberts: Well, I’m all a hundred percent there with Jessica and what she’s saying. And our previous conversation highlighted something for me, which is that in order for us to realize how these roots in our historical systems for oppression have created intergenerational impact and continue to do so, I think what’s a very important aspect is for us to learn about history, with the hope that by learning through history we can be more aware about how we are caught in the same patterns. You need to learn from history, not just to learn facts, It’s like what is the impact?
The other thing is to be aware our own identities. Because I have an identity as a cisgender woman, Asian, and that creates privileges and marginalization in specific ways, so how does that then shape my lenses of the world. That shapes my biases and blind parts of the world. I’m gonna borrow from a very esteemed colleague who uses this; his name is Terence Harwood, and he uses this example of “Hey, most of us had an experience of killing a bug, right? When we kill a bug, what makes us think it’s okay to kill a bug?” And he goes, “It’s fear. We think they’re a threat. We think they do not deserve to live. They’re a pest. Whatever.” If we use that same sort of fear and threat towards others, then imagine. What’s the way we’re gonna behave towards that other?
Larry Baker: Wow.
Peyina Lin-Roberts: Same. We treat them like a bug, right? So instead, I think what’s really important for authentic allyship is to truly be able to see someone as a human that deserves to be cared for just for being, not for what they bring to the table. And sometimes that requires a little extra effort because I know that I’m a little less friendly with my neighbors than my husband is. And part of it is the shield that I’ve built over time, where like if I’m ignored, I’m not gonna try this time. It’s this like cyclical effect.
Because here’s the deal. We go and meet people, and my husband is British so then people get really interested. “Where is your accent from?” and blah, blah, blah, blah. Then do they ever ask me? No. Like I’m just there. “Oh yeah, great. And where’re you from?” Then I start talking, and then they’re not interested anymore. With that story, what I’m trying to say is yes, you wanna treat someone as a human being, but sometimes maybe it takes a little extra effort. And yet—I’m not giving a simple answer—we have to consider people at different stages of development. If you were treating me when I was younger, when all I wanted to do was belong and be seen as not different, and you did extra with me, you’re making me stand out.
So it’s having a little patience, knowing that people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent, each one of us is gonna be in our own journey of how we fit in this world, same as anyone else. It’s how to lead with curiosity, as I was saying, with respect, checking in our own biases, and being okay that maybe English is actually our most fluent language right now. Even if I have an accent at times, even if I have to mix other languages and don’t know all my vocabulary in English, it is still so far from my most fluent language. It’s just accepting the paradox of dissonance that exists in us and humanity.
Larry Baker: Okay. Yeah, I love that. You are talking about so many concepts, Peyina that in this space of DE&I we talk about: we talk about bias, we talk about culture, we talk about meeting people where they are, we talk about humility, we talk about humanity. We talk about all of these different things as practitioners. So with that lens, if you had to—because again, it’s enormous, right? You were, you were pointing out that boy, oh boy, there are so many rabbit holes that we can go down when we have these conversations. But if you had one ask for DEI practitioners and the companies who really want to promote allyship and support people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent, what would that be? What would be your one ask? Peyina, I’ll ask you to start and then Jessica, you can think of yours because I’m gonna ask you the same question. So Peyina, you first. What’s that one ask if you had that magic wand. “Here’s what I want it to be.”
Peyina Lin-Roberts: Mm-hm. That is such a good and difficult question to answer because that one ask. I think it relates to something I just mentioned earlier, but it’s being able to release expectations and assumptions about someone’s category, identity, or whatnot. Right?
Larry Baker: Yeah, that’s good!
Peyina Lin-Roberts: A simple example is me. If I started speaking in Spanish, you wouldn’t know I’m Asian, except for now I’m a little more broken. But this has literally happened to me. It’s like not just the social identity of like what language you speak or what is your cultural identity—not just that—but also being able to hold the kind of dissonance or paradox that this person may be in this many ways quote-unquote “Asian” because they’re humble, they don’t necessarily stand out or like lead in certain ways, and yet in many others they’re gonna be direct and demand for what they they need. And then don’t use the double bind to then say, “Hey, you are not a good cultural fit.” It’s like being able to hold that within one individual, they can have multidimensional characteristics that don’t fit preexisting social boxes.
Larry Baker: Yeah, or all the different levels of intersectionality, right?
Peyina Lin-Roberts: Yeah.
Larry Baker: Because you’re never really just one thing. It’s just like you said, in one instance you can be an Asian business executive, but in the next moment you’re a wife, you’re a mother, you’re a volunteer, or what have you. So all of those intersectionality points have to be considered, and we have to put down all of those preconceived notions or stereotypes and biases that we have towards individuals. We want ’em to fit in this nice little box, and when they go outside of that box it’s like, “Whoa, what’d you do that for? This is what I thought you were going to be, and you’re totally not that.”
So thank you so much, Peyina. Okay, Jessica, one ask.
Jessica Shao: Yeah. That was very good.
Jessica Shao: My ask would to be able to somehow increase our tolerance for dissonance. How can you and I create space for these diverging opinions and worldviews can come together and actually speak to each other? Not in any accusatory or not in any hierarchical ways mm-hmm, but how can we create the space for people of varying backgrounds, varying beliefs to just talk to each other, even though we know that I believe in something that’s very different than what you believe in?
I think for me it’s something that’s so, so important for our country, for that political environment that we live in right now. For me as an individual and for me as a mother, as I think about raising the next generation of women in America, how can I give this superpower to my daughters so that they learn to listen to those who don’t believe the same things that they do. It’s one ask, but it’s also multiple asks to be able to do that and to have the listening skills and to have that opening mind to be able to lean in to hear other people’s stories.
Larry Baker: And Jessica, you talk about a concept that I often refer to as “we have to give each other grace.” We have to understand that everyone has a different experience, and we wanna make room for those experiences. And then when we have differences in our experiences, we have to be willing to engage in that conversation without the judgment, without the criticism, without the negativity. That is actually fighting a tendency that we’ve almost been ingrained to have this negative view towards other people or other cultures experiences, and ultimately what’s at the root of that is—in my opinion, again—that people profit from us having these conflicts because it’s easier to pit this group against that group. They realize that if those groups ever came together, yikes. That could be really powerful. That could be revolutionary. That could be the evolution of us moving to this society that hopefully was supposed to happen when America was founded.
But when we start putting all those things aside and start saying, “Hey, let’s start to build on all of our experiences in such a way that we’re bridging, coming together, and creating space for everyone to have those individuals experiences, but we bridge them and merge them in such a way that we see the best in each other.” I think that that’s that ultimate level of conversation that we need to get to.
So thank you both for coming on today. This was amazing! Jessica, I know that I’ve worked with you in the past, but Peyina, I think it was an incredible opportunity to meet with you and to discuss with you. I’d like to give you both the opportunity because if someone heard something throughout this podcast and they’re like, “Wow, I’d really like to hear more about that,” how can they reach out to you to make contact? Jessica, if you could talk about your preferred method, and then Peyina, I’ll give you an opportunity to do that as well.
Jessica Shao: Yeah, I’m wide open to the public via LinkedIn, so if you want to carry the conversation, I’d love to speak with you and hear from people.
Larry Baker: Awesome.
Peyina Lin-Roberts: Yeah, same here. I’m also on LinkedIn, and I welcome people to connect or message me there as well.
Larry Baker: Perfect. Thank you both so much for this incredibly important topic, and I just love to have conversations where I can see connections in regards to how it reflects an experience that I have in this country as well. Thank you both for your time, and for those of you that have joined us, hopefully there was something that you can take from this and then begin to apply in your journey of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. Thank you so much. Have a wonderful day.
Peyina Lin-Roberts: Thank you, Larry.
Jessica Shao: Thank you.
Larry Baker: You are welcome.
And to all of you that are listening, we wanna know what were your biggest takeaways from this conversation. Please share them with us on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn at Language and Culture Worldwide or LCW.
Culture Moments: Let’s Talk About the Impact of Tech Layoffs
Published on: November 9, 2022
Following the industry’s boom during the pandemic, the tech sector faces extensive layoffs and a looming recession. Growing employee unease makes intentionally inclusive engagement the number one priority, but what does DEI look like in tech?
Join Culture Moments Host Larry Baker (he/him) and Gusto’s Chief Diversity and Engagement Officer Bernard Coleman (he/him) for a discussion about the cultural implications of tech layoffs and creating proactive strategies for engaging and retaining top talent.
Show Notes & Highlights
4:37 Bernard explains the current biggest DEI challenges in tech
14:57 Bernard shares tips for DEI practitioners working in the tech sector
21:02 Bernard discusses keeping DEI a priority with tightening budgets
24:09 Bernard connects the concept of “Trusted Few” to barriers facing Black and Brown folks
28:45 Bernard reflects on how the tech industry has changed over 20 years
32:33 Larry explains how current events have led to new platforms for change
35:24 Bernard considers the effect of the recession on our progress toward equity
Larry Baker: Hello everyone, and welcome to the Culture Moments podcast. I’m your host, Larry Baker, and I am thrilled to have you join us for our second season called “Brave Conversations with LCW.” In these episodes, you’ll hear from a panel of guests from specific communities offering a range of perspectives on the past two years. We’ll hear about their own experiences as well as their insights on what has changed and, more importantly, what needs to change to move equity forward. As we all know, so much has shifted and changed over the past two years. And for many of us, we’re still in recovery from a very difficult 24 months.
So hello, everyone, and welcome to Brave Conversations Live with LCW. I am your host, Larry Baker. I use the pronouns of he and him, and I am thrilled to welcome you to this episode of our live stream series. Each month, we will be making space for timely and important conversations that we hope will educate, generate discussion, and help you to take some actionable items back to your organization and your daily lives. For those of you who may not be familiar with LCW, we are a global diversity, equity, and inclusion training, consulting, and translation firm that partners with organizations to help develop global mindsets and help you develop the skills and systems to succeed in a culturally diverse world.
Today I am super excited to have this conversation around events that you’ve probably heard about over the last few months all over the news, which are about layoffs in the tech sector. We’ll be diving into what impacts these layoffs are having, how to bring up questions around equity, and what we can expect from here.
I am being joined by Bernard Coleman, who is Gusto’s Chief Diversity and Engagement Officer, and I’m going to be asking Bernard to introduce himself in a moment. But before we jump into our conversation, I wanted to make sure that I let each and every one of you know that after our discussion, we’re going to answer some of the questions that you all might have for Bernard or myself in these conversations. So as we dive in, please don’t be afraid to ask your questions in the chat and we will get to them as soon as we are done with our portion. With that being said, I would like to invite Bernard Coleman to give an introduction of himself before we kick off the session. So, Bernard, welcome, and please introduce yourself.
Bernard Coleman: Thank you Larry. Thank you, LCW, for having me here today. I think this is a very timely conversation. I’m Bernard Coleman. I’m the Chief Diversity and Engagement Officer at Gusto. Gusto, for those who don’t know, is a people platform. Basically, we help small and medium-sized businesses empower a better life through payroll, 401K benefits… helping you run your business and hopefully simplifying your life in the process. I’ve been there about three years. This is the work that I love to do, and I’m looking forward to this conversation.
Larry Baker: Great, thank you so much, Bernard. So to get us started, I know—and hopefully our audience will understand this as soon as we get through our conversation—that you’re not only immersed within the tech world as you just mentioned, but you’re thinking about that space specifically with a DE&I lens. Can you give us some background in regards to what are the tech spaces greatest challenges when we think about diversity, equity, inclusion specifically during this time?
Bernard Coleman: I think tech is grappling with a lot of changes. I think when you’re looking at… we’re still in the throes of a pandemic. Though it feels like it’s closer to the end, we’re still in a pandemic. The macroeconomic trends are telling us a recession is coming—nobody knows when. And that’s backed against last year was a wild year. It was a year of growth. A lot of tech companies were booming, and so we’re just feeling a 180 degrees difference from last year to this year. So there’s a lot of adjustment and whiplash. And I think when you take that whole environment—the pandemic, the looming macroeconomic trends—I think companies are maybe right-sizing for the moment they think they’re entering, then also trying to keep equity at the center, and then also trying to grow your business at the same time.
I think there’s a lot of ambiguity in the water as people are trying to grapple with what’s next, and I think the biggest challenge is how do you operate within this environment and doing it in an equitable way, so that way—whether you’re doing adjustments or not to your staff and the size and makeup of your staff— that you’re also thinking about the morale and the people that are left behind and understanding the successful path forward.
So I think that there’s a lot of challenges there, but I think it’s really like how do you manage your workforce through… I’m gonna say crisis. How do you manage through and make sure that everyone has perspective and that we can see, hopefully, there’s a light at the end of this?
Larry Baker: Okay, so that kind of shapes where I want to go with my next question because you talked about these changes that are happening in the workforce. Specifically, what types of conversations are you having with your organizational leadership around equity when it comes to this decision-making process
Bernard Coleman: Yeah, I think Gusto and others really had me think about when is the process itself efficient. And a lot of times I think in boom, years, sometimes you get less efficient, right? You have to think about what are the efficiencies: what should we be doing to make sure that we are always maximizing our economies of scale and really thinking through what’s that process look like?
And when we’re talking about it, you have to look at the entire employee life cycle. How do you invite people? How do you onboard them? How do you hire them? How do you engage with them? How do you progress them? How do you develop them up until someone graduates? But you have to look the entire employee life cycle to understand what’s going on with equity and how’s that look for each person, whatever the demographic is. What does that experience look like: is it equitable, is it fair? And then that’s when you should be focusing on those efficiencies I mentioned, to get those economies of scale. So that way, no matter where you’re on the process, people know it’s a fair process, and you’re always keeping that top of mind.
And also not fall into your base selves. I think in times of crisis, process can go out the window. Efficiencies can go out the window because people are in a panic state. But it’s really being thoughtful and thinking about what’s needed for not only the organization but what’s needed for your people to get through this period of time. Cuz it’s just: that a period of time. We know there’s bull markets and there’s bear markets, and we happen to be heading into a bear market. And this is just adjustments you have to make.
I think it’s really helping people have that perspective. The way we frame it is we look also to history. We look to the late nineties, early two thousands; there was the .com bubble bursting. If you look at how recessions go, this is very similar. There’s nothing gonna be exactly the same, but it allows you to understand what happened then, how did people respond, what could we be doing now to then make sure the severity is in what it was back then 20 some years ago. So I think it’s also being students of history and providing that perspective cuz a lot of folks—I think if you have earlier career staff—we have never been through a recession. They might have been around for only a bull market and they don’t have perspective, and so this might feel like a very scary time. This could feel like a time of our knees, but I think by looking at the past, you can be more thoughtful about the approach to the future. So I think that’s why you have to think about equity, cuz I think back then that was unknown for folks. I think some people saw a lot of companies not do as well because they weren’t so circumspect or thinking about or have a historical point to look back to, to think about how they could go forward.
Larry Baker: Yeah. That’s such an awesome mindset, Bernard, to actually make people look at the past. To see some of those mistakes that were made so that we are not condemned to repeat them. I think that’s an excellent point of reference that would not just be applicable in the tech sector, but in all employment sectors, right? Because I know that there’s that duality that you talked about that you’re looking at it from a diversity, equity, and inclusion perspective, but you’re looking at that whole life cycle of the employees. So I appreciate you sharing that insight about taking a look at the history. That’s an excellent point.
So when we think about that… because you talk about where we’re in this moment where we’re on the edge of this recession, and specifically let’s talk about the impact of the tech world. What are you seeing happening in this space right now, and why do you think it’s happening?
Bernard Coleman: Yeah, I think honestly last year we were overheated, and I think people overhired. I think efficiencies go out the window when at almost a sugar high, if you will, and so it’s interesting to see all those cycles. We saw last year was a great resignation or the great realignment. Now we’re talking about the great breakup.
You look at the McKinsey numbers—in terms of the McKinsey-LeanIn studies—showing that people are breaking up with organizations, and still we’re seeing the Department of Labor saying there’s two roles for every applicant. So even despite looming recession, there’s still a war for talent. We are getting a lot of mixed signals, but I think companies need to be thinking again about those efficiencies, like re-thinking org design: what does your org look like, what does it need to go to this next level, are you assigning talent to task and making sure you have the right people in the right places to run your business? Cause a lot of times goal posts move. You need to move your team to align to where the goal posts are now, so that way you can be successful.
I think that’s super important. When think about your headcount planning, do you still need those same folks? I think it’s really investing in your people—and back to that equity piece—equitably, so that way there might not be the same outcomes, but people should have the same opportunities to get invested in. I think as you move in realigning your team to those tasks, [it’s] really understanding how that should be configured for you to be successful, right? I think the other parts are still focusing on the culture, making sure people understand the mission and the purpose, and that’s why we’re here.
Then being really transparent in that communication and conveying to people, as soon as you know it, this is what’s going on. Sharing it with your team, sharing it with your leaders, so that way you’re bringing everyone in the journey. When you can do that really well, I think you settle the waters. You’re allowing people to see their role in the larger, bigger ecosystem of what it will take for us to be successful, to get out of this place and to the next thing.
I think we’re seeing that across tech companies. Certain companies were more reserved, and maybe they didn’t hire so many people. Certain companies–and I don’t wanna call any of them out–but they hired a great deal of people and they’re now having to make these adjustments. I think it’s everyone really right-sizing or making sure that we are right-sized for what’s coming. Cuz again, the recession, at least according to the Fed, is not yet here. So it’s making sure that you are getting more efficient and thinking about these things, and you really need to be thinking about it from an equitable lens.
Larry Baker: Yeah, thank you so much for that, Bernard. I’m really drawn to the piece where you’re talking about organizations sharing that transparency because it not only reveals the true intentions behind what’s going on during this time period, but it also lets people know that you’re doing this in a manner that’s, uh, respectful for who they are as an individual. Because even though we think about, how traumatic these layoffs can be for those individuals that may have to endure them, being transparent, being open, letting people feel like “Okay, even though this is something that could be viewed as something negative that’s happening to me, at least I know what’s going on every step of the way.” I appreciate that whole concept of transparency and how it’s not just applicable in the tough times. Having that transparency during the good times as well is super important. So thank you for that insight as well.
When we think about our organization at LCW, we absolutely have the privilege of working with a number of clients that work in the tech sector. I’m wondering, are there personal lessons that you’d like to share with our community of DE&I practitioners who are working in the tech sector based upon some things that you’ve gone through? And it doesn’t have to be specific to Gusto, of course. I mean, you have years of experience with multiple organizations, so some ideas. You know, “Here’s some lessons that I’ve learned that I’d like to share with you as a DE&I practitioner to help through these situations.” So from that perspective, what kind of lessons learned can you share with us, Bernard?
Bernard Coleman: There’s lots of lessons, that’s for sure. I think the first one is putting equity at the center. First it is sharing the perspective, but sometimes people can seem like numbers. We get too far away from the actual people who are doing the work, the jobs. The impact of this is having on them as they see… you know, I go on LinkedIn and you can see on the right-hand scroll, this company’s doing layoffs, that company’s doing layoffs. It could be anxiety-inducing. I think it’s important to understand, again, how people are feeling where they are and they aren’t numbers. They are indeed people with families, and they’re doing important work. Even though they might still be safe, like let’s say they are the ones who also survive a layoff, you have to also think about how those folks are coping. There’s feelings of loss, saying goodbye to people. I’ve been through that. Before I was working in technology I worked on campaigns, and it was fairly cyclical: you’d see friends, make ’em, and then their jobs would come to end. And you felt this emotional loss because your buddy or buddies may not make it.
I think it’s giving people a lot of grace; no matter what’s going on, is giving people grace during this process. No matter what side of a yard. That’s the first piece. I think second is being transparent and communicating what you know when you know. Treating people like adults so that way they can plan and make decisions. I think having a plan makes you feel more assured, not that it changes anything, but I think giving people that semblance of peace of mind is critically important. But I think it’s also important to understand—now, this is the larger lesson and why this work is so important when you think about diversity, equity, inclusion—is when you see these layoffs happening and you hear that old adage “last hire, first fire,” now you have to think, “How do we get to this place?“ And when I think about any company, when you form a company, build a company, you’re probably pulling from your social circles. If your social circles homogenous, it’s a lot of like for like. And so the company is growing, growing, growing, those are the core roles, the core parts of the business are being built out. They’re definitely the first hire. But when you actually get to a large and larger organization, that’s when you might be more flushed like last year. You might invite others in who might not be part of your immediate social circle. When you think about this, this is why it’s so important to keep DEI top of mind and making it core to your business so that way when—and heaven forbid someone has to do a tech layoff or any type of layoff for that matter—it was more representative to begin with. So therefore it is more fair and equitable because the demography of your company was more representative of wherever your company’s operating.
I think when you look that way, it makes it very, very difficult—that when you get to that terrible position of having to make those tough cuts, and then the thawing on the historically excluded—that’s why we do this work: getting to the root of that and understanding it started then. If a company’s been around 20, 30 years, there’s a lot to it. There’s layers.
I think the important thing is this work is continuous. It’s a journey, and you have to kind of remind people and bring them along. Help them understand there’s so many layers to it, and that you should be thinking about DEI the entire time, not just in the boom years, but also right now when we’re talking about efficiencies. How are you looking at it through the DEI lens to make sure that you can’t get those economies at scale, even on the DEI side? Cuz it should be integrated into everything that you do I think that’s being the student of history, understanding those trends and how we got here.
Larry Baker: Yeah. I think that’s such an excellent point that because these systems have been prevalent throughout the organization’s makeup, having those conversations in regards to, “Well, how do we adjust that? How do we move forward?” We can’t change the past, right? We can look at the past to get an idea of where we want to go in the future, but what do we do in the here and now?
I really appreciate you talking about that these conversations are even more essential when you go through these periods where “Oh my gosh, do we revert back to what we’ve always done? Or do we really make those tough decisions that no, we’re gonna forge ahead in a new way? And we’re going to look at these decisions that we’re making with that DE&I lens top of mind so that when we come out of this, it will now become a part of our new culture that we’re trying to establish.” I absolutely appreciate you providing that insight, so thank you so much for that, Bernard.
What I’d like to do—Bernard, if you’re okay with this—let’s see if we have a few questions from our audience. I’m gonna check our chat and see if we have a few questions… Oh, here we go. I hope that I do not mispronounce your name: Shanna Atkinson. And if I did mispronounce your name, I apologize. Her question is, “Hello. I wanted to ask: how can we make sure DE&I remains a priority even as budgets may tighten?” That is probably along that whole concept that you mentioned, Bernard: first hired, first fired. The first thing that usually goes is the DE&I initiative, so I’m gonna let you dig into that one, Bernard. How do we make sure that it remains a priority?
Bernard Coleman: It’s a great question, and thank you for that one. I’m sure that’s the million-dollar question. Maybe it’s the billion-dollar question. So how do we make sure that DEI remains a priority, even as budgets tighten? I think it’s tying it back to values, to the mission, to the purpose and reminding people that it is part of that journey, or it should be. Cuz I know the talent and the existing employees care about it.
There’s a stat—I always like to try it out—from the Edelman Public Trust; they say people believe more in employers and businesses as opposed to the government. So there is an expectation that companies are having to do more, need to do more, need to do better because that is where the trust is with: with our employers, right? So if you’re a company, and even though you might say, “Well, we’re just doing this temporarily,” people will remember and have long memories. This word-of-mouth DEI is what people ask about when talent goes to join a company. This is part of their assessment on their rubric, of why they joined the company and why they leave. Cuz the other side of the coin is right now, there’s two jobs for every applicant. Folks are gonna leave if they don’t think that commitment’s there.
And so DEI is at the center of it all cuz everyone says—almost anybody I interview says—this is important, and then this is why they’re assessing. They’re thinking about DEI, they’re thinking about culture, they’re thinking about values, but those values, they’re all interrelated. So I think it’s also reminding leaders or those who might have forgotten, there is an inherent value in DEI to nearly everyone in the company. They should be incentivized to make sure that doesn’t go away when they’re tightening budgets, that at least if you are tightening budgets that it’s equitably applied. If everybody has to take a cut, everybody takes a cut. But if it’s just you’re calling out your DEI department, you’re not holding true to those values, to the mission, to the purpose, and you’re probably killing your brand because then people… they’ll speak. They’ll go on Glassdoor, talk to one another. Comparably, Blind, whatever the system they use, people are talking.
We talked about this being a potential bear market. We will come out of this and it’s gonna be a bull market, and then you might not be an employer of choice if you choose to let go of this. So I think you have to remind people… I don’t wanna say make the business case, but I will say remind them of the metrics that matter. It costs a lot more to rehire, to hire, than it is to retain, so you wanna keep that employee brand strong at all times. No matter recession or a boom year.
Larry Baker: Yeah, that’s a great point. I mean, that will be something that you will be measured on in regards to how did you respond in the tough times, right? When you had to make those tough decisions, were you committed to the values of the culture of your organization or did you say, “Yeah, this is too tough. We’re just gonna go back to the old standard way of things.” So that’s fantastic. Thank you so much for that question. Let’s see if we have any other questions…
Perfect. Thank you, Jacob. “Why does it seem that the tech sector faces added barriers for Black and Brown employees in particular, and how can organizations take a first step to address these?” So Bernard, again, in that role because you have that DE&I lens, gimme some insights on this as well.
Bernard Coleman: I think again, it goes back to—another great question—inherently how some tech organizations and companies were built. So pull from my group of friends… there’s this exercise we do in the DEI space where you—there’s a lot of different names for it—but you write a list of the 10 closest people to go to for advice outside of your parents.
Larry Baker: Your trusted few. Yeah, I know exactly what you’re talking about.
Bernard Coleman: And you take a look at that list and then, for many people who participate in that, it’s eye-opening when you realize that your trusted few looks a lot like you. So if you apply that to how your company’s built, you go to your trusted few cuz you of course wanna trust the people you’re building this new enterprise with. And as it grows and scales, your trusted few is pulling from their trusted few. And those referrals are becoming their trusted few referrals. Next thing you know, your company’s extremely homogenous.
And then you realize diversity and inclusion’s important cuz you saw the Edelman Public Trust stats, and data that says this should be important to me, so then you try to hire Black and Brown folks that you didn’t actually know at all. It becomes more and more difficult as you scale and get bigger. Then also when things. get to crisis mode, self-preservation comes about, and you save yourself and your friends. I hate to be so blunt about it, but that’s how people operate. That’s why DEI has to sit at the center of this cuz when you’re making your list of who you might consider and might need to leave the company, if it’s all Black and Brown that’s a problem.
This is where biases come into play, other institutional factors where this is a foregone conclusion. Of course they’re gonna be the ones who go because they were never in your trusted few. People have to really take stock of that and understand, “Am I perpetuating this?” Take a look at those lists, do better, try again, and make sure it is equitable. Because if the list ends up that way, it’s statistically improbable when you look across all these companies that they’re always the same groups of people. From my experience, that just means a lot of self-protection’s going on, whether that’s intentional or by accident, but we do need to get behind it because it shouldn’t end up that way, not if you’re doing this with care and diligence. It should not end up that way. Yeah.
Larry Baker: Yeah. The example of trusted few, it really resonates with me because you’re right, when we use that in some of the work that we do, a lot of people are surprised when they evaluate that trusted few and how homogeneous that group actually is. And it’s not just to the dominant culture, it’s to some of the underrepresented cultures as well. It speaks to that point of, “Well, if I don’t know you that well, then when it comes time to making those cuts I really don’t see you as part of that trusted few.”
It’s like you said: for lack of a better term, it may be easier for me to make the cut to you because we’re not really that close. I really don’t understand your situation and your makeup and how it will actually impact you. I definitely appreciate you going into that part of the conversation as well.
When we think about any other insights—because I think that, Bernard, you’ve touched upon so many crucial topics and so many crucial perspectives—I think we have one more question in the chat. Hold on for a second… I think someone just shot me a message, so let’s take a look at another question. I believe I’m being cued from the chat, so you can go ahead and share that question as well. I love the tech. Okay, so Bernard, and this is specific to you… Someone sent this to the chat: “You talked about that this tech boom and recession are reminiscent of something that happened in the early nineties and 2000s. What does this say about continuing business practices, and has anything really changed?”
Bernard Coleman: I think to a degree, yes. I think it depends on the age of your company and if you have leaders who perhaps were there and around or who were students of history who can remember how that went and then say, “Well, let’s not do that again. What can we do that’s different here?” But I also say this, like the emphasis of diversity, equity, and inclusion wasn’t a thing in the early 2000s. This field is really relatively new, was more so affirmative action to the law. Diversity, equity, and inclusion really comes down to motivation, help people gain perspective as to why this is important. It’s a different angle in terms of which we operate. I would say that didn’t exist before, not as it does as a discipline. So that’s changed. There’s a lot of awareness. I would say about five or six years ago, when people started putting out diversity reports in terms of that awareness, you’d share your business practices in terms of how you’re doing in terms of representation, having to explain why attrition was so high. The level of transparency is much greater than it was, 20-some odd years ago. I think companies are gonna have to come to task on that and really be honest about where they are and where they aren’t and be more thoughtful and actually revisit those lists if they’re thinking about layoffs or part of those layoffs.
I do think it also depends on the age of your company, but in terms of business practices, I do think people are more diligent and think about that risk when your lists look too much like one group. So I do think the practices have changed. Their awareness has changed. The conversation and tone and tenor have changed since then where I don’t think people are just so easily cast away in that sense. But we still have a long way to go. We still have a long way to go, but I think that the transparency is a good… what’s the best word I’m looking for? Kind of check to the system. I see what’s going on, and that you’re gonna be effectively taking a task on that if you are one of those companies who maybe using a 22-, 23-year-old dated model in terms of how you’re approaching this. I do think things have improved, but I think for the smaller companies, the younger companies who might not know any better, they might still be on the exact same things and history might be repeating itself. I think very much depends on who you have there in terms of your leadership team.
The other thing I’ll say is the HR function since that time I think has more clout. And what I mean by that is I’ve noticed in the pandemic that HR professionals, DEI professionals, have been in high demand. I say this is the moment where preparation means opportunity, where folks who weren’t necessarily at the table are considered table-ready, are now here contributing to the conversation. And I think we’re seeing better outcomes as a result of the elevation of the role and how they’re able to insert themselves in the conversation for better outcomes.
Larry Baker: Yeah. That last piece really resonates with me is because I do also feel like one of the biggest things that has changed is that the underrepresented groups, they are more vocal and more willing to hold these organizations more accountable than maybe they were in the past. Because I do feel like that culture shift, the environment not only with the pandemic but the social unrest that has been happening, has added a higher organizational responsibility that we haven’t seen in… honestly ever. So those voices feeling like it’s more acceptable to engage in these conversations, I think that’s a big change that has come about as well during this time period. I definitely agree that yeah, this is a different ballgame that we’re in than 20-some odd years ago. Absolutely I can see that.
So Bernard, I absolutely appreciate the insight that you’ve provided, and I know that you have so many different ways that people can engage with you, and they can hear more from you on this topic and others. I wanna give you an opportunity to kinda share how folks can reach out to hear some of the things or some of the insights that you’re sharing in the work that you do. Can you give us some idea of how can we get in touch with Bernard after.
Bernard Coleman: Sure, and thank you for that. I write a column for Inc called “The Culture Code.” I write about a lot of different things that I see going on. I try to make sure it’s timely, and usually what I’m writing about are things that I’m working through, how we can apply it at work, or things that I think I’m seeing in the landscape that I think if I’m thinking about it, I bet others are too and are looking to engage in some type of conversation. And maybe I can add to the conversation as we think about what’s next. We’re all trying to predict the future, but I want to be additive and helpful cuz I know when things like this hit recessions, downturns, things come from left field. You’re always looking for resources. I know how I felt when I was looking for answers or trying to make my decisions more informed. I just fully just wanna be, be helpful. I’d encourage folks to check that out if they like.
Larry Baker: That’s great, thank you so much. So much so that somebody else said, “Wait, before we leave, Bernard, I wanna ask one more question!” I think I just got a response, so here we go. “Do you think this layoff or recession environment will lead to a loss of equity in pay? Whatever gains have happened over the years for Black and Brown folks in tech, how best can we combat that?” Wow. Powerful question.
Bernard Coleman: Yes and no. That’s a very complicated answer. It depends on… we’re speaking of Black and Brown folks. What’s interesting, Black and Brown folks are unicorns, but also at the same time you might the castaways depending on what role you’re in. I think if you’re a unicorn in a role that’s highly sought-after, you can probably make incredible gains. But if you are in a role that maybe has less barriers of entry, therefore easier to cut, it could be catastrophic.
I also am seeing people talk about pay in different ways. Like now a lot of people, at least in the tech sector, can work remotely. Localized pay…. is it cost of labor versus um, Uh, you know, COLA, right? Cost of…
Larry Baker: Living adjustments? Yeah.
Bernard Coleman: Yeah. All those different things impact how somebody’s gonna do, right? I think it’s a very complicated question. I think it’s probably leaning more towards yes, I do think it will impact Black and Brown folks’ equity and pay, and then the lucky few, like “I’m an engineer who does AI. Of course I’m doing the extreme. I would no matter what.”
I think the best way to combat that is to look at the equity in and of itself and to make sure we’re being equitable fair if we are gonna do layoffs. Larry, you talked about being vocal: people need to remind people of how does that look. “How is this even possible that this size is all this group?” Then probe and ask, “Why is it this way? Why is it that way? How is that even happening?” Really just using your voice. I think that’s the one thing, the Great Resignation and whatever “great” we’re in right now, is leveraging your voice to elevate these things and making people aware. A lot of the data that we see, at least the latest thing that I was looking at was the McKinsey Lean In Report, but it talks about women of color leaving the workforce at large. It’s especially exacerbated for Black and Brown women, right? Different pockets are getting hit differently from this. I think it’s gonna be very dependent on what your discipline is, what your company is, and then what your gender is. It’s gonna be very different depending on what seat you’re in.
I think the best way to combat it is… companies themselves should be thinking about this all the time and making sure it’s equitable. If they ever have to do a layoff, looking back in an equitable fashion, I would expect you to have a good employment council or one on dial to look and talk about that and not just go with list of your team made up cuz otherwise it’s gonna skew. The second thing—and not that I’m providing like legal advice, it’s just looking over my career—you have to have some quality control and list manager to make sure that one group isn’t getting slighted or disproportionately being impacted. In other words—“adverse impact” would be the legal-use term—someone needs to be looking at those lists. I think the other thing that’s can be added is making sure that you just keep an eye on your demographics. In Gusto we look at it monthly: we report it internally, so everyone kind of see how we’re doing. I think it’s excellent best practice. That’s part of the transparency, is letting people know this is how we’re doing day in and day out, but anything you can do to elevate it and keep that topic of conversation I think helps one group or two groups getting adversely impacted.
Larry Baker: Yeah, I love that. And I’m gonna steal this phrase, “our unicorns and castaways.” Do we have too many people in a certain group in our castaways or do we have too few of people in our unicorns? I love that phrase and absolutely that is key to that whole conversation around equity. So I appreciate you putting that out into the atmosphere, and I’m gonna keep that term perpetuating through all of my conversations with clients and look at those unicorns and look at those castaways.
Thank you so much, Bernard, because this has been such a great conversation, and the reality is it doesn’t stop here. We hope that you take this advice and the questions that were asked back into your own workplaces, and specifically if you want a partner in having these conversations, let us know. You can contact LCW at languageandculture.com. We would be more than happy to help assist your organization in having these conversations in the future.
Thank you so much, Bernard, for taking your time and sharing with us your expertise. I absolutely appreciate that. I will give you an opportunity to have any closing thoughts if you’d like to share with the audience before we adjourn our session.
Bernard Coleman: Yeah, I think the closing thoughts would be be students of history. It can help inform the future. Recognize that a lot of folks have a voice that didn’t exist before, and you really have to elevate the conversation to drive accountability. I think if you could do those things well, it doesn’t have to be like it was in the past. And this is to Larry’s point, this is a journey that we’re all on. It’s on all of us to keep doing our part in the journey to make sure it is a more equitable future.
Larry Baker: Absolutely. Thank you so much for that, Bernard. Excellent words. I really do hope that folks take a lot of this action-planning to heart and implement these back in your workplaces because all of this is extremely important. It has to have a different future moving forward.
Thank you so much for joining us, Bernard. Thank you so much to everyone who has joined in on this call. This has been Brave Conversations with LCW Live. Thank you so much. Have a wonderful rest of your day.
Bernard Coleman: Thank you.
Larry Baker: And to all of you that are listening, we wanna know what were your biggest takeaways from this conversation? Please share them with us on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn at Language and Culture Worldwide or LCW.
Culture Moments: Let’s Talk About Muralism as Cultural Perseverance
Published on: October 6, 2022
In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, Brave Conversations with LCW was thrilled to feature local Pilsen murals, brought to life by the rich history of the Latinx diaspora. Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood is home to vibrant murals depicting the cultural rebirth of indigenous Latinx stories following the Mexican Revolution. These murals serve as visual expressions of national identity that also incorporate Pilsen’s own unique culture. Join Culture Moments host Larry Baker (he/him) and Pilsen Public Art Tours’ co-founder Luis Tubens (he/him) for an exclusive, virtual tour and celebration of the Latinx experience through art.
Show Notes & Highlights
4:42 Luis describes muralism as a form of cultural expression
8:09 A contemporary interpretation of Aztec god Xōchipilli
11:51 “Somos Pilsen” depicts the past, present, and future of the neighborhood
17:11 The women-created and uplifting “Weaving Cultures”
22:10 Luis and Larry discuss generational differences in culture
26:51 A mural showcasing Black and Brown solidarity
30:06 The “Declaration of Immigration” by Yollocalli Youth Arts Reach
34:50 Luis explains how art differs by community
40:09 Luis describes site selection for muralists
45:32 Larry defines Hispanic, Latino, and Latinx
Larry Baker: Hello, everyone, and welcome to Brave Conversations Live with LCW. I am your host, Larry Baker, and I use he/him pronouns. I am absolutely thrilled to welcome you to this special edition of our livestream series as we kick off Hispanic Heritage Month with a unique look at muralism and Hispanic and Latinx history.
For those of you who do not know or who are not familiar with LCW, first of all, shame on you. You should be familiar with LCW! We are a global diversity, equity, and inclusion training, consulting, and translation firm that partners with organizations to develop global mindsets and to help you develop your skills and systems to succeed in a culturally diverse world today.
I am super excited to be here today with my guest, Luis Tubens, who is the co-founder of the Pilsen Art Tour. I am so excited to have Luis here with us to explore some beautiful local murals, the rich history that they convey, and what this teaches all of us about the Latin and Hispanic experience. I went on this tour with Luis a couple of weeks back—or maybe even a month or two back—and I was absolutely blown away by this young man. I said, “We have to have him on our live podcast!”
With that being said… Luis, can you do us the pleasure of introducing yourself before we jump into our conversation?
Luis Tubens: Yes, thank you. Thank you so much, Larry, for having me, and thank you all for inviting me to be part of this program. It is an honor to be here.
My name is Luis Tubens. I am the co-founder of the Pilsen Public Art Tours, as Larry Baker said. I got my start in muralism and understanding public art as it relates to Mexico and the neighborhood of Pilsen because I worked for the National Museum of Mexican Art for 10 years as an art educator, so it was my job to learn about Mexican art history. Then right after that, I started working for a local politician who—at the time—their district covered Pilsen. I got to learn about Pilsen, the neighborhood where all these murals are located, through a very social and political lens in addition to the art experience that I already had working at the museum.
Now today, I do a lot of different things, Larry, but the way that you know me is I give tours of the murals in the neighborhood of Pilsen, which is the neighborhood with the highest concentration of murals in the city of Chicago and the Midwest.
Larry Baker: Awesome. Thank you so much, Luis.
Before we jump into our conversation, I just wanna take a moment to highlight the chat function that’s available across our live stream today. We wanna hear your reactions and your thoughts on these murals that Luis is going to guide us through today, so please remember to let us know your thoughts and the comments. Your comments might even make it on screen into our discussion on today.
So, Luis, let’s get started. Can you tell us a little bit about muralism and what art can actually teach us about people’s lived experiences?
Luis Tubens: Yeah, so we’ll start off with the word “mural.” The root of the word is “muro,” which in Mexico means “wall.” So a mural is a painting on the wall, but most traditional muralists will add to that definition by saying that the muralist meant to depict the struggle, the story of the community of the neighborhood that it’s in.
The muralist movement started right after the Mexican Revolution, which was a civil war from 1910 to 1920, in which it was 10 years of Mexicans fighting Mexicans. After the war’s over, there becomes this conscious effort by the new government to educate the masses, and artwork is used in large effect to educate people mostly because it is something that no matter your level of education you can understand. But the problem that was happening is the same problem that happens today: that artwork was seen as something for the high-class, and something for the rich. So much of the people that needed it most didn’t have access to it.
So when Diego Rivera… and this is now getting into like the story and the lore and all that… when Diego returns from Europe after the Mexican revolution he sees what’s going on, he takes what he learned in Europe about frescos, and he starts to apply his artwork outside. So now you have one of the nation’s most recognized, celebrated artists painting outside, giving away their artwork for free so that the richest person and the poorest person would be equal in viewing the art.
There was a lot of different things that they were painting, but the three main themes that were coming out of the murals were reviving indigenous stories, talking about the truth of colonialism, and also—because we’re talking about the time of the Great Depression—workers’ rights. These are the things you start seeing coming out much during the muralist movement and that catches fire in the sense that art movements start to follow suit all over the Americas. You know, we start having a muralist movement here in the United States, too.
Larry Baker: Absolutely. Luis, thank you so much for that. I loved how you expressed in your statement about how artwork is used to educate people, and it makes us equal when we take it out of that status of only a certain group of people being able to see it to taking it outside so that anyone can see it, regardless of their financial status. I love that insight that you shared.
And again, what drew me to you is your passion around the murals that you were showing us on that tour through Pilsen. I want you to share because I heard that you brought some pictures of that artwork today to share. So Luis, I’m just gonna let you take it away and talk to me a little bit about where these murals are located and what they mean to your local community.
Luis Tubens: Yeah, absolutely. We could go ahead and maybe pull up the first slide. The murals like this one that we see here are located in the neighborhood of Pilsen; that’s the neighborhood that we’re gonna be talking about. Now, Pilsen is a neighborhood that is located southwest of the downtown area in the city of Chicago. It is a Mexican community that is closes to downtown Chicago, and the neighborhood of Pilsen is seen today as the Mexican cultural capital. Murals, artwork, museums, things like that happen in Pilsen.
The first mural that we see here is done by the artist SENKOE, and it is of the Aztec god of the flowers, Xōchipilli. The name of the mural is “Herencia,” or Heritage. It’s located near 18th Place and Wood Street; it’s located just on the back of a building that faces an alley, and this mural was completed in 2020. It is a mural which depicts the god of the flowers Xōchipilli like a young boy versus how you would see it, say, if you were to look it up in a history book or Google image it or what have you. The reason why the artist paints Xōchipilli like a flesh and blood boy from the year 2020 is to say that this belief of the traditions of the indigenous people is not something that is buried and dug up by archeologists. It is something that exists today, and it exists in the way that traditions and beliefs exist—and that is through the youth and through art.
Now you’ll notice that Xōchipilli has a couple of particular flowers in his hands. One is a cempasuchil flower. It’s the gold, bright, round flower, which is a flower that many people probably recognize from Día de Muertos, the Day of the Dead holiday on November 1st and November 2nd in Mexico. It’s used to decorate the altars or the offerings so it attracts the souls back to their ofrenda. The other flower where you see the hummingbird receiving nourishment is the hibiscus flower or the jamaica flower, which is used for a variety of different purposes but mostly tastily for Agua de Jamaica, for hibiscus water.
This mural though is completely done with spray paint, different than some of the other murals that we are going to see. Now, when you have these murals that have these messages like this, people from the community can see themselves reflected in there visually on the walls in their neighborhood, and they also get these messages that are meant to inspire and progress the community.
That is a contemporary mural that you would see near the heart of the Pilsen neighborhood.
Larry Baker: Okay, yep. I absolutely remember that. So what else did you bring for us in, Luis?
Luis Tubens: Yeah, we could take a look at slide number two, please. This one right here I think is a great example of murals being used to show the story of the community. This one right here is called “Somos Pilsen,” the title of which you can see on the book—which is also the Bible—there at the bottom of the screen. Somos means “we are:” we are Pilsen. What you see right here are lots of community members that had made an impact on the Pilsen neighborhood from throughout the generations. In the upper left corner, you’ll see that there is a woman wearing this purple dress who is Teresa Fraga—an activist who led a group of mothers and community members to build the first high school in Pilsen, Benito Juarez. You’ll see a lot of people there that, uh, have made an impact on the Mexican community in the Pilsen neighborhood.
The mural is done by two artists, Pablo Serrano and Mateo Zapata. If you take a look at the mural, you could see that there is this phoenix, which also kind of looks like the brown eagle that you would see on the center of the Mexican flag. You have here the story of the phoenix, of people being able to rise out of the ashes—whether these ashes are a metaphor for poverty, for racism, for migration—but being able to rise out of that struggle. The phoenix looks like the brown eagle to specifically represent the Pilsen neighborhood and it’s people. You’ll see that on the right wing… so to your left, but the right wing of the phoenix, there we have the map of Latin America to not only represent Mexicans but represent Latin Americans as a whole.
You’ll take a look at the book, and it’s meant to be like a bible, like opening up the Bible of the neighborhood. And there’s a date as to when the mural was completed, which was January 6th, 2021… or I’m sorry, I believe 2020? The date escapes me, but there you’ll see that right on the Bible.
In the upper right you could see the future of the neighborhood, where you have the families, the young people. They’re getting together and they’re playing with the buildings like if they were Legos, like if they were building blocks, to show how young people play with each other oftentimes without caring about appearance or about color of skin. And this is gonna be how the city progresses is when the youth is playing together regardless of their backgrounds and using the city as a playground. So I think this mural that was recently completed is a very good example. It’s on the side of a building that houses a very delicious restaurant called Carnitas Don Pedro, and as a matter of fact, you see the owner and his wife all the way at the top: the person you see with the apron, and you see his wife looking at him. But this mural is a great example of being able to tell the history of the neighborhood, to showcase people from the neighborhood, and to talk about what they want the future of the neighborhood to be.
Larry Baker: Yeah, I love that that part of the murals that always seem to the cultural values of the Hispanic community on top of the values of the community that the mural is absolutely in. That was one of the things that really resonated with us as we walked through the tour: not only did we sense the historical importance of these murals, but how it helped shape the Pilsen community. I thought that every mural that we saw did an excellent job of touching up on where many of these individuals came from, to where they are now, to where they see themselves going in the future. I absolutely love that tie with every single mural that we were able to see on our particular tour, and I would invite individuals that are on the call to share your insights as well as we go through this. I don’t wanna slow up Luis’s thunder because he’s doing such an excellent job with these, but I did wanna make sure that we gave space for folks to make comments as well.
So, Luis, I don’t wanna stop you. Go ahead cuz I know you have something else to share.
Luis Tubens: Yeah, yeah! Let’s go ahead and go to the next slide; we’ll take a look at the next mural. This mural is on a street called 16th Street, which is the northern border of the Pilsen neighborhood, and it’s done by two artists: Sam Kirk and Sandra Antongiorgi. It’s gonna be one of the few women muralists that will be able to take a look at today. There is an overwhelming number of men muralists that work in Pilsen, but there is a growing number of women muralists. And here are some two of the more prolific ones, Sam Kirk and Sandra Antongiorgi, who collaborate on this mural that is sponsored by CPAG—which is the Chicago Public Art Group, and it’s one of the oldest art groups if not the oldest art group in the city of Chicago sponsoring public works all over the city. It was completed in 2016.
Now this wall, you can see, is a little bit different than a building because it’s a railway. 16th Street in Pilson is actually about a mile-and-a-half-long stretch of railways: the Burlington North here in Chicago. It’s a lot of wall, and you’re gonna see a lot of different murals on that wall. About half of the murals that you’ll see on that wall—not today—were from a project that happened in 2010, which was called the 16th Street Mural Project, that was curated by the Chicago Urban Art Society and sponsored by the City of Chicago. You would see murals that not only talked about the Mexican community, but also talked about communities from all over the world because artists were coming from different parts of the world and Chicago to come paint on this wall. However, this mural that we’re looking at was not part of that project.
This mural was part of our project by CPAG, the Chicago Public Art Group. It’s titled “Weaving Cultures.” You could see here that there are these five women’s faces, and it’s meant to represent different women in the community, but also because there are very few murals that will showcase just women. They’re growing now, but it wasn’t a lot of them. So here is the purpose of showcasing women very prominently in the Pilsen neighborhood, and according to Sam Kirk and Sandra Antongiorgi, it’s the first time that a transgender woman is being depicted in a mural, in a celebratory way at least.
The first four women are not real women in the sense that they’re not real humans, but they are interpretations of some of the people that Sandra Antongiorgi knows. However, the last woman—the fifth one—is Janice Bond, who is a local activist who was based outta Chicago for many years and did a lot of different things for the community all over the city of Chicago.
This mural is kind of a hybrid mural in the sense that it’s both done with spray paint and regular paint just done with a paintbrush. The creation of this mural, as told to me by Sam Kirk and Sandra Antongiorgi really speaks to the communal aspect of muralism because people were walking by and they were able to engage with the artists and ask them questions, like “Who are you painting?” and “Why are you painting this?” and all of that. It really offers that dialogue.
Larry Baker: Yeah. That’s incredible insight in regards to that, Luis, because I think you mentioned that where the mural is located is on the railway, and there’s so many times that we are traveling on those railways and we see that art but we don’t really have that appreciation for it. But to know that so many of these pieces of art are sanctioned by city entities… that shows the importance in regards to that education that they are trying to make accessible to everyone regardless of your financial status or your educational status. These are resources that really speak to “we really want this to be accessible to the entire community.” So I love that—how they turn something that looks so common into definitely not only a piece of art but an educational experience.
I do believe that we have a question… Oh, here we go. “Have you seen a change in the types of imagery and symbols used in contemporary murals compared to older works in Pilsen? And do contemporary artists embrace different aspects of Mexican culture or history?”
Luis Tubens: Yeah, there’s definitely different imagery and symbols used in the contemporary murals compared to the older works, the main reason because the times have changed. When you see a contemporary work, the artists are gonna be using things from the now and representing things from the now. That is not to say that there’s not contemporary artists still painting historical messages and figures from many, many, many, many years ago.
For example, there was a youth that was murdered by the Chicago Police Department in Chicago named Adam Toledo. There was murals dedicated to him because that’s something that happened a few years ago. Of course, you will see paintings dedicated to, for example, Cesar Chavez or Rudy Lozano—who were very active 40 years ago—but you’re definitely gonna see people being depicted from today.
But also, there is now a different style of art than what we had with the first muralist movement in Pilsen. What I mean by that is you start to have graffiti introduced in the 80s after the murals already having about maybe 10 years or so of people painting in Pilsen. When graffiti enters, it kind of really flips things because now you have this whole new art form that originated here in the States. Then from graffiti, you have many artists developing their own styles and their own characters that they paint today. The thing about something like graffiti is that graffiti is almost done exclusively on walls.
So now you have here murals that are gonna be depicting members of the community and social and political messages, and then you got graffiti murals that are going on too. I would imagine that in a few years—you know, the next generation—we’re gonna have yet another different style of art that is gonna be taking over the walls too.
There was a second part of the question that I don’t think I answered. “Do contemporary artists embrace different aspects of the Mexican…” Yeah. You know, there was a time in Pilsen’s history where that if you weren’t Mexican and you wanted to paint in Pilsen, it was kinda like an unspoken thing that you had to paint something that was related to the Mexican community. That is not so much the case now because you even have Mexican artists that are painting things that are not necessarily hardcore representing Mexico; they may be representing something different, something else. And that’s okay because there’s no law that says that all murals must depict socio-political messaging.
However, as you can imagine, as always—right Larry?—with old and young people, that there’s always clashes with ideas and philosophies and things like that. There’s always people saying, “Hey, what are you doing? If you have the opportunity to paint a wall, that should be something that’s political and social.” And then you have people saying, “Man, paint what you want. Paint something beautiful, what you want.”
Larry Baker: Yeah. That just goes to the point of, you know, even though they may represent the same culture, it’s not a monolith, right? And from generation to generation, the focus or the priority… they shift and they change, and hopefully they’re shifting for the new challenges for that particular generation. I don’t fight the same battles my parents or my grandparents fought; I’m fighting for different victories to be won. Each generation that comes after us, hopefully there’s this progression in their perspective and their pursuits in regards to what they wanna express.
So Luis, I know you have a couple more, right?
Luis Tubens: Yeah, yeah, yeah—let’s get to it! Can we get to the next one, please? This mural is another contemporary mural, and this mural is done by several different artists. This is one of four unity murals that was organized by the Vault Gallerie—specifically Delilah Martinez, the head of the Vault Gallerie, in which she gathered specifically Black and Brown artists together. This mural is produced shortly after the protest against the murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police Department, in which things were happening all over the country in protest of that. What happened in Chicago, though, is that there were moments during those protests that—in Latinx communities—it highlighted anti-Black aggression that was going on within those communities. There were activists and artists that denounced some of the anti-Black aggression that was going on in these communities, so there was rallies that were held with Brown Solidarity for Black Lives. It was really interesting because you had within the greater Black Lives Matter movement, that was happening in Chicago at least, this brown solidarity that was going on too.
So artwork starts stemming from that, and you have this mural that’s done by, as I mentioned, both Black and Brown artists that is there to showcase that solidarity. You have here women representing people from Black and Brown communities, and each one of those women is done by a different artist. This mural also is completely done with spray paint, which kind of gives you a clue also to the background of many of these artists, which goes to what I was saying earlier. This newer generation of artists that stem from the eighties and nineties, a lot of their work is coming from… their training ground, I should say, was in the graffiti movement, which is why you see a lot of spray paint being used here in many of the contemporary murals.
It’s a very prominent mural because it is pretty much in the heart of the Pilsen neighborhood. It’s on the corner of 18th and Bishop. It’s on the side of Pilsen Vintage Thrift, so it gets a lot of traffic, I guess is my point. A lot of people go ahead and they see that mural.
Larry Baker: Yeah, I love the unity aspect in that in regards to the Black and Brown movement because many of our struggles… they overlap, right? We have a lot of the same challenges in both communities and love seeing that support on both sides coming together. I also think I saw the Black Panther referenced in the lower right-hand corner of that.
Luis Tubens: Yeah, yep.
Larry Baker: You know, that definitely resonated with me. I absolutely thought that was a groundbreaking movie. Luis, I know we have another one, so let’s keep it going.
Luis Tubens: Yeah, let’s go ahead, and I think this is our last one if I’m not mistaken.
Larry Baker: Oh yeah, I love this one.
Luis Tubens: This mural is older than all the other murals that I’ve shown you. This mural is from 2009, and actually it’s in worse shape than what you see it here now. You could see that in this photograph that I took about a year ago or so that the top was peeling off, and unfortunately it received more damage.
I wanna show it because I don’t know how much longer it’s gonna last, but it’s another mural that highlights the messaging of the community. This mural—that is titled “Declaration of Immigration”—is done by the Yollocalli Youth Arts Reach with lead artist Salvador Jimenez. I wanted to show it to you because it’s a mural that’s done by an organization that works with youth, and this is one of the ways that muralism is getting passed down; it’s through these after-school art programs that many of these practices are continuing with the youth, and it’s a way to keep that up. The Yollocalli Youth Arts Reach, by the way, is an organization that is the youth wing of the National Museum of Mexican Art, and this mural coincided with an exhibition by the same name—“Declaration of Immigration”—which was an exhibition that showcased the contribution of immigrants from all over the world to Chicago.
This piece here, “Declaration of Immigration…” the actual words that you’re looking at is what you would’ve seen at the entrance of the exhibition, but what’s different here is that you have this barbed wire that is throughout the mural. Uh huh, there you go. The words are breaking through the barbed wire. It’s almost as to say that the declaration itself will break through the barbed wire. You have here these pieces of fabric that are caught within the barbed wire, and you could probably already tell that they’re meant to represent flags of different nations of people that came here as immigrants. It’s also a play on some photography work that documents the barbed wire at the border, in which you would see pieces of clothes actually being caught within the barbed wire, empty jugs of water, things like that, kids’ toys and stuff.
Here also, what you see are these butterflies, and the butterfly’s here for a couple different reasons. One is because they may represent migration: change. From the south of Mexico, monarch butterflies migrate to Canada and back through several generations, and they’ve probably been doing so longer than humans have been migrating across those same borders. But also, the butterfly represents metamorphosis and change and all that. You’ll notice something else about the mural is in the upper left is the helicopter that is hunting the butterflies, which is meant to represent ICE—the Immigration Customs Enforcement Agency.
Larry Baker: Yeah. Luis, first of all, thank you so much for sharing this information because the same feelings that I had as I walked through the tour, they came out again with your examples because not only is this about muralism, it tells so much of a story. It tells so much of a story about the struggles and the triumphs and the good and the bad within the Pilsen community, the Hispanic community. I think that this is such an excellent way to kick off Hispanic Heritage Month with this type of a celebration, so I absolutely appreciate your passion behind this.
But the reality is this isn’t just happening in Pilsen, right? So as we think about these murals and how they might apply to the Latinx or the Hispanic community across the entire country and the experiences of many others outside of Pilsen, how do you think they represent those experiences outside of Pilsen?
Luis Tubens: Yeah. Well first I wanna say thank you, Heather Henson, for your comment—appreciate that. So outside of the Pilsen neighborhood, all over the world but specifically all over the United States, murals are being used to represent the Latinx struggle in those particular communities. The thing about murals is that for the most part, they’re meant to be specific to that neighborhood. Outside of the neighborhood of Pilsen—you know, Los Angeles; New York; Milwaukee, Wisconsin—those murals are gonna be talking about the Latinx community as it pertains to that area, that neighborhood.
Maybe in one area of the United States, Mexicans came to work on the railroads, and another area of the United States Puerto Ricans went to work on the steel mill, and the other part of the United States Cubans went to were seeking… uh, how you say… refuge. Refugees. That artwork in those Latinx communities are gonna be representing them specifically and their struggles.
Larry Baker: Love that, love that. And I love how it has that authenticity for whatever region that they represent, and you did highlight a lot of that on the tour as well.
We do wanna open it up for some questions. We have a few moments. I don’t know if we have any specific questions that came about, but we do want to give you an opportunity to share your comments or some of your reactions in the chat. Luis is extremely knowledgeable and just a fantastic reference on this topic, and we want to give you the opportunity to share and ask questions and put your comments or your reactions.
But as we wait for those to come… Luis, we’ve talked a little bit about some of those parallels between the Latinx community or the Hispanic community. When we first shared that, you gave me a really good illustration in regards to the definition or why some groups prefer Hispanic, some groups prefer Latinx. If you could elaborate on that just a little bit and share some of that information that I found to be extremely important in our conversations… If you could just talk about that for a moment as we wait for comments.
Luis Tubens: Sure, Sure. Now, I will say though I’m not a professional linguist or word…
Larry Baker: (chuckles) From your experience.
Luis Tubens: Yeah, yeah. From my experience, basically the word “Hispanic” is usually used more in conservative areas, and the word Latinx tends to be the left, I guess you could say. Maybe Hispanic is to the right and Latinx tends to be to the left. I’m not saying that’s always the case a hundred percent of the time, but that’s what I’ve come to see. So you’ll see things like the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, or using something like the Latinx Arts programs. That’s usually how I tend to see the words being used.
Now, the word “Latinx” though is something that is specifically used in the United States, and it’s used in the United States because the word “Latinx” is not something that is natural to say in Spanish. The reason why we have an “X” is because most of the words in Spanish have gender significance: they’re male or female for a lot of them. There is no just “them.” For a lot of times to refer to the Latino community as a whole, if you didn’t wanna use the word “Hispanic,” you would say “Latino.” But in an effort recently to de-gender the language, the word “Latinx” with the “X” at the end was used to replace the “O” or the “A” that would usually signify male or female. So Latinx to represent the community as a whole. Not everybody uses that. There’s a lot of people that will still use Latino and consider themselves to the left.
Hispanic also tends to be used a lot more with the southwest of the United States, so you’ll hear Hispanic more in areas of Texas, Arizona, New Mexico. You’ll hear it in Chicago as well and anywhere that there is the community, but also, in general, you’re gonna tend to hear that more in the southwest—Hispanic be used more than the word Latinx—for sure.
Larry Baker: Okay. Thank you for that insight, Luis.
I think we do have some questions, so let’s take a look. We have one from Tyler: “What is the thought process a muralist goes through when selecting a site to create a mural?”
Luis Tubens: You know, it really depends on a lot of different things. One of the things is you want a wall that is gonna be seen by everybody. You’re gonna want a wall that’s gonna be seen, so you want good location. You also want a nice wall; you don’t want a wall’s gonna be falling apart, you know. The wall might be in a great location, but it may be in some serious need of tuckpointing or something else. That is not to say that you’re not gonna work on a wall that is in a bad location or that is in need of work, but you’re gonna tend to wanna wall that it’s a good wall, it’s a good condition, and it’s a good location.
Some of the other factors may be personal. Maybe the wall has some significance to the artist, but if you’re talking now about commissioned work—if an artist is getting paid to do a mural—then they may not be the ones that are so concerned with the location. Maybe the person that is paying them that says, “Hey, I want it to be on my building” or “I want it to be on my business” or whatever it may be.
Some of the other things that the artist is gonna consider the process of the mural is the neighborhood: where are they at, what are they gonna paint that is gonna reflect the neighborhood or reflect the business or reflect something of the community. That’s something that they’re gonna consider in their final rendition. That’s not 100% of the time, as I mentioned, but that’s something they’re gonna consider. I would say those are the main factors in that.
Larry Baker: Awesome. Thank you so much, Luis. I think we might have one more question in time for… Okay, so Heather has a question. She’s been to Porto Vita a few times and loves walking around and looking at the murals there. You’ll be in Chicago in October. “Is there a map of mural locations visitors can use?” I say just get into contact with Luis!
Luis Tubens: That’s what I’m saying, Larry! Well, thank you. Thank you for the question. Yeah, okay. To honestly answer your question: yes. Through the National Museum of Mexican Art’s website—and I don’t I don’t use it because I give tours of the murals—but through their website they have something of a virtual map of murals.
There’s also a few universities and colleges that have worked on this. Notre Dame is going to be debuting an app that showcases some of the history of the murals. It’s gonna be something of a virtual map as well. But the one that I would recommend, the one that I know right now, is through the National Museum of Mexican Art.
They’re not gonna be all the murals because there’s hundreds of murals in the neighborhood, but the National Museum of Mexican Art is gonna be the one that is a virtual tour that I trust. Um, if I may do a little shameless plug now, Larry… if that’s okay.
Larry Baker: No, absolutely. Go right ahead.
Luis Tubens: The Pilsen Public Art Tours, which you see there at the bottom of your screen the website ppat.space, or you could find me on social media on Facebook and Instagram by just that Pilsen Public Art Tours. Also, Pilsen Public Art Tours Gmail is where you could reach me too. I give private tours all the time, so please feel free to contact me if you would like to to have a tour. September-October is a very popular time as we near the time of the Day of the Dead. It’s also a very comfortable time to go ahead and to take a walking tour.
But if a walking tour is not something you’re into, I also offer a virtual tour similar to what we have here, in which I give you some photos of murals and I talk about them. I also do fundraiser mural tours for local organizations. We just were able to raise over $700 for the Pilsen Food Pantry, and when I give these tours no money goes to me. One hundred percent goes to the organization. I’m going to be giving another mural tour in efforts to raise money for another local organization called the Pilsen Arts and Community House. I’m gonna be posting that on my website and in social media if that’s something that you would like to attend. Those are public tours that people can come and they can join. Information about where we meet, the length of the tour, the cost will all be there on my website or on the social media.
Larry Baker: Yeah, thank you so much, Luis. This has been such a great conversation, but it doesn’t stop here.
I did want to kind of touch back on our topic where we talked about Hispanic and Latino. I have some bullet points that I wanted to share. When it comes to that phrase “Hispanic,” it typically refers to people from Spain or Spanish-speaking origin. For example, Hispanic would include people from Spain and not Brazil, where Portuguese is predominantly spoken. Latino typically refers to people of Latin America—descendants that are living in the United States—and this term includes Brazilians and it excludes people from Spain. But in recent years that term “Latinx,” as you mentioned, has gained popularity. It’s a gender neutral or non-binary term for Latino or Latina, and it pushes back on that gendered language to be more inclusive. So we touched upon it… we did wanna make sure we elaborated on it because it kind of put you in a bad spot, but I know that we had a conversation around it so I wanted to have you share that insight as well.
But that’s what we do at LCW, right? We really hope that you take what you’ve learned from here and you share it with your friends, you share it with your coworkers. If you wanna have a partner in these conversations, please reach out or contact LCW, languagandculture.com.
Thank you, thank you, thank you so much for joining us. And again, plug whatever you wanna plug. You know, I have nothing but love for you, my friend. Make sure that the young lady who says she was coming in October, that she hits you up, and take a look at that Pilsen tour. It is amazing. It will be well worth your time.
And we just want to thank you all for your participation and your engagement. Thank you so much. This has been Brave Conversations with LCW Live. Have a great day. Bye.
Culture Moments: How to Create Brave Spaces for Your Employees
Published on: September 21, 2022
We all know that what happens in our world outside of work doesn’t stop at the office door. How do you approach discussing global events with a multicultural team, and how do these conversations affect corporate outcomes?
Culture Moments host Larry Baker (he/him), Harvard Business Publishing’s Vice President of Diversity and Culture Ellen Bailey (she/her), and The Culture Mastery’s Founder and CEO Christian Höferle (he/him) discuss what it means to create brave spaces where employees feel empowered to embrace discomfort and have authentic conversations.
Show Notes & Highlights
5:13 Larry distinguishes courageous and brave conversations
10:50 Ellen shares an example of creating a safe space for authentic conversations
16:48 Christian and Ellen discuss generational differences in embracing discomfort
21:39 Christian shares a story about tackling difficult conversations across cultures
32:13 Ellen gives three tips for successful brave spaces in the workplace
38:04 Christian analyzes assumptions about “soft” and “core” skills
42:27 Ellen gives her closing thoughts on owning brave conversations
43:04 Christian gives his final thoughts citing The Four Agreements
44:38 Larry wraps up by linking grace and authentic curiosity
Larry Baker: Hello everyone, and welcome to the Culture Moments podcast. I’m your host, Larry Baker, and I am thrilled to have you join us for our second season called Brave Conversations with LCW. In these episodes, you’ll hear from a panel of guests from specific communities offering a range of perspectives on the past two years. We’ll hear about their own experiences as well as their insights on what has changed, and more importantly, what needs to change to move equity forward.
As we all know, so much has shifted and changed over the past two years, and for many of us, we’re still in recovery from a very difficult 24 months.
So welcome. On today’s episode of the Culture Moments podcast, we’ll be discussing how to create brave spaces for your employees in the workplace. Now you might be familiar with the term “safe space,” which is an environment that is closely associated with comfort, but with authentic conversations surrounding diversity, equity, and inclusion, they’re not always comfortable. These conversations—while oftentimes uncomfortable and challenging—have the ability to be transformational. So how do we create brave spaces intentionally structured to allow contributors to share their own experiences, To engage in difficult conversations, and to challenge one another?
How do you create brave spaces for your employees? To help us dive into this important discussion, I am joined by Ellen Bailey, who is the vice president of diversity and culture at Harvard Business Publishing, and Christian Höferle, President and CEO of The Culture Mastery. Welcome.
Ellen Bailey: Thank you.
Larry Baker: You are welcome.
Christian Höferle: Thank you for having us, Larry.
Larry Baker: It is absolutely my pleasure. So I gave a very high-level, generic introduction of who you are, but I do wanna give you the space to officially give your introduction. And I’m gonna start with you, Ellen, if you would kick us off.
Ellen Bailey: Sure, absolutely. So as the vice president of diversity and culture at Harvard Business Publishing, I lead our work not only on the diversity equity, inclusion, and belonging front but also when it comes to employee engagement and that cultural shift that we’re trying to make. I have been with HBP for almost 11 years, and we are a sole subsidiary of Harvard University. And so we have access to that thought leadership, which is great, but we’re kind of run as our own separate business. I have been in this space doing this type of work since 2020, like many people I think have
Larry Baker: Okay, amazing. Thank you so much for that, Ellen. Christian you’re up.
Christian Höferle: I am German by birth, American by choice, and at heart I am a Bavarian—that only matters to people who understand the regionality of the German culture. I usually introduce myself like this because it highlights that our culture and where we belong, who we are, and what we identify as has so many layers… and nationality or profession or ethnicity or whatever other layers. If you look at them singularly, they will never give you the full picture. As the owner and founder of my company, The Culture Mastery, we’ve been working for the past…well, it’s been more than 15 years now, with global professionals. These include typically either expatriates who are going into another culture for work reasons, or include multinational, multicultural organizations who have teams that are composed of members that are from different cultural backgrounds and therefore want to become better at being and working with one another in light of all their behavioral differences.
Larry Baker: Amazing. Thank you so much for that, Christian, and thank you so much for that, Ellen, for that introduction. We’re gonna kick off our conversation by doing a little bit of level setting, and what I mean by that is we’re gonna talk about what do you consider a brave conversation and why it’s important to make space for it in the workplace.
I’ll start by giving an illustration of how I interpret the difference between brave conversations and courageous conversations because I think many people are familiar with the phrase “courageous conversations,” but in my opinion, there’s a difference. Because when we talk about a courageous conversation, it is an individual that may not feel like they have all types of information, or they’ve done a lot of research to really engage in the conversation, so they’re going into it with a little bit of trepidation. But with a brave conversation, this is an individual that has spent time engaging with whatever cultural difference or whatever difference they decide to focus in on, and they’ve done some homework, and they’ve done the work. Now they’re ready to engage in that conversation with their information bravely to challenge those concepts and those things that they’ve studied. To me, there’s the difference between courageous is a little bit about, “Well, I know a little bit, but I’m not too sure, but I’m gonna have the conversation anyway,” but the brave conversation is “I’ve done some work, I’ve dug into these concepts, and now I’m ready to challenge that and engage in some difficult conversations based upon that knowledge.”
So Christian, I’d like for you to jump in and talk to me about what do you consider a brave conversation, and why is it important to make space for it in the workplace?
Christian Höferle: First of all, I like your definition and explanation of that definition. As you were elaborating on this, I recognized myself that I often don’t know where that transition is happening for myself from courageous to brave. How often, potentially, did I have those conversations that were only courageous and I thought I was being brave? I would ask myself first, “Did I do enough work? Have I done enough homework to be considered a brave conversationalist on these topics?”
For me, topics that I find myself to at least be courageous are questions about ethnic and socioeconomic inequality in the country that is now my country of residence, which is the United States. It often involves inequalities in the workplace around gender and the new newly shaping or evolving definitions of how do we “classify gender.” Also a little bit age in the workplace—generational gaps seem to become sometimes contentious topics. I think the one that’s dominant for me in my work life and also my personal life is the inequality that we continue to experience in the United States based on the systematic oppression of people of color.
Larry Baker: Yeah, great. Thank you so much for that, Christian. Okay, Ellen, your turn. Tell me: what do you consider a brave conversation? Why is it important to make space for it in the workplace?
Ellen Bailey: Sure. I regularly quote Martin Luther King. I don’t have it on today, but I often have on a shirt with his quote that says “The time is always right to do what’s right.” I live by that in my personal life and my work life. I think that the time is always right to do what’s right, and if we don’t have both courageous and, as important or more important, brave conversations, then we won’t see change and we’re condoning the current state. That is why to me, it is so critically important that we have these brave conversations. Why it’s so important that we have the brave conversations is because while the courageous ones are certainly a great first step, are a phase one, we need that additional education/research to be able to present the business case, the potential outcome, or the impact so that people then feel it a little bit more and are actually driven to change.
Larry Baker: Yeah, that’s a great point. I love how you made that connection to the business case because again, if we’re trying to set it up in the workplace, there has to be some business result that we can tie these initiatives to. So that’s an excellent point as well, Ellen. I appreciate you for saying that.
Ellen, I’m gonna start with you on this particular question because I know that that is one of your responsibilities in the role that you do. Can you give me some examples of some workspaces that have done a good job at this, and if you’re willing to be transparent, maybe some examples where it is not going so well?
Ellen Bailey: Not so much? Yeah, for sure. Well, we encourage everybody to have that culture feedback and have those courageous and brave conversations. Does really happen in the workplace? Not near as much as I think we would all hope. Right? And that goes across the entire business, everything from culture and race and all of the hard stuff to the business topics.
Larry Baker: Yes.
Ellen Bailey: We’ve done a couple of things that have worked and not worked, so I’ll share first the positive on what we’ve seen really work.
We decided—and I say we, the president of our organization, Josh Mock, and I decided—that we needed to demonstrate what these brave conversations look like. We started with honestly kind of a pure experiment, and it was here in the U.S. after the Ahmaud Arbery jury selection was announced where there were 11 white jurors and one Black juror. Josh and I decided to have this impromptu safe space call; we sent out an email just an hour or so in advance to all employees and they could join for this 45-minute conversation, which was a complete, safe, and brave space for you to share and to ask questions. What we decided to do was join five minutes early and just start having the conversation so that as people then tuned in, they heard us saying things like white privilege and different things like that are tough topics. Then people just started chiming in, and it became one, large, honestly quite brave conversation because we had people talking about kind of doing your research and prepping before. We had people that had legal backgrounds that we’re talking about the challenges in this situation, etcetera.
I say that because then that has teed us up, so as different things happen, not just in the U.S. but around the globe, we then have these what I call kind of impromptu safe space calls where people can come and chat, and that has worked brilliantly. What I have found is when we try to force it a bit and we actually have storytelling sessions or people perceive it as formal development, they don’t go as well. So while you do need to prep, I think they need to be natural, I think they need to be in-the-moment, and I think they need to be optional.
Larry Baker: That’s great because again, that true, authentic conversation has the opportunity to avail itself, and what you are going to see from individuals in your positions within the organization is that there could be moments where we missed the mark as well. And that level of vulnerability is really what’s needed to have these conversations because far too often, I feel that people believe that “I have to be perfect with this conversation.”
Ellen Bailey: Right.
Larry Baker: It’s not about being perfect; it’s about getting better. That’s what, hopefully, that interaction that you’re having is showing.
Ellen Bailey: That’s exactly right, and that is what it does. It helps fuel additional conversations. Then what we are finding is that people are then taking something that they’ve learned or something that they’ve shared back to their teams. Even if everybody didn’t attend, it is still helping people have those brave conversations outside of that particular space so that they hopefully are encouraged to have those brave conversations as needed on their own.
Larry Baker: Amazing. Thank you for sharing that. Okay, Christian, I’m not gonna leave you out. I’m gonna get you into this mix as well. So talk about some of the good examples that you’ve seen and some that, you know, maybe not so much.
Christian Höferle: Well, the good examples: I’m gonna be vague about this because I have to preface this answer a little bit. I don’t go into my rooms or into my client engagements with the DEI hat on. When I enter the conversation, it’s usually about crossing cultures efficiently and the DEI portion feedbacks on that.
I’ve seen the biggest successes usually in teams that are more diverse, and diverse also in the generational sense. The higher the percentage of gen gen-Z and millennials, the better of the outcomes—in my experience—in these brave conversations. The negative examples are usually with groups that are monocultural, or who don’t see themselves as monocultural and turn out to be, and are predominantly white. I have to throw shade on my own ethnicity. It’s those rooms when a more, let’s say… I don’t want to call them “conservative” because that’s a misuse of the word… let’s say a more old-fashioned or old ways of thinking types are in a room together and feel that they’re not under the microscope and can let loose, then that’s when some of that nastiness that persists is breaking out. This has been tough for me because I shut that down usually, or I mean, if it’s really nasty I shut it down. If it only seven-out-of-ten of nasty, then I engage your conversations, say, “Okay, let me challenge you on these positions, and let’s see where this goes.”
It’s easy for me to say this on microphone as a middle-aged white guy, saying, “I feel myself as an ally and an advocate and all this nonsense.” It’s easy for me to say that; it’s hard for me to prove that. The proof would be in people that see me as their ally confessing to that, and we don’t have them on this call. So I’m not gonna flaunt that card because it’s kind of ludicrous, but it’s these conversations when they become fragile, when my white brethren and sisters show their fragility is when it becomes interesting, and that’s where I think I am brave. That’s when I want the challenge, and I want them to embrace that discomfort in that conversation. These brave conversations, in my opinion—and this is very biased point of view, probably—I think they have to be uncomfortable. Without discomfort, there is no change.
Ellen Bailey: That’s right. I was just gonna chime in on that real quick cuz you know, Christian, I agree with you a hundred percent. I will say that even prior to being in this role officially, I was pushing our organization since 2018 to do more in this space. We needed to do more for our employees, and we needed to do more for society. It took George Floyd being murdered to make that happen, to be quite frank. When we first started talking about the challenges, as a Black woman, I said to our white executive committee, “We need to say the word ‘Black.’ Let’s just say the word Black. Let’s just say that out loud. Let’s put it in print. We just have to say that.”
I’m in my fifties, so I will say my generation and above that is hesitant on “I don’t know how to say it. I don’t know what to say. I’m gonna say it wrong…” because we were taught not to talk about it. And it is this younger generation as like, “Wait, what? We don’t talk about that?” So that’s refreshing.
Larry Baker: That that’s an excellent point. You know, we actually have a program where we talk about the Black experience in America, and that’s something that we address. “How do I know whether to say Black or African American?” Well, the biggest thing is just ask them, right? Or you can listen to how they’re referencing themselves, and that can give you a clue to do it. But it does go back to that point of people are too wound up and wrapped up in being perfect with these conversations. The reality is even if I’m from the cultural group, I don’t represent the entire group because we’re not a monolith. There is no way that I can speak on behalf of the 40-some-odd million Blacks that are in the United States and across the world. I am giving you my experience, so please don’t take that as the gospel and run over to Ellen’s house and say, “Well, Larry told me that Black people…” Whoa, whoa, whoa.
Ellen Bailey: Right.
Larry Baker: We can’t go there. This is an individual type of conversation, and this is what’s gotten us in trouble already because we take this blanket approach to an entire culture without the acknowledgement of the differences even within that specific culture. Whether we wanna get around it or not and say, “I talked to my Black friend or my Black colleague,” it’s going to require some deeper, brave conversations in which you do the work, you have these conversations, you mess up, but then you get back into the game. That’s the key.
Ellen Bailey: That’s the key.
Larry Baker: So I appreciate that discussion,
Christian, I’m gonna come back to you because you added a really interesting perspective that I don’t want you to gloss over. You said, “The DE&I comes later. I focus more on the multicultural perspectives.” But that’s huge because culture is a part of our behavior.
Christian Höferle: Oh, I completely agree
Larry Baker: I want to touch on that point, Christian, because we know that our teams can be global teams, and they bring with them that multicultural perspective. So Christian, kick us off and tell me: how do you approach discussing global events with the multicultural team?
Christian Höferle: Let me give you a personal story. That memory was triggered by what Ellen just said. This is my personal story, so I’m not representative for my culture, right? I’m just one member of that tribe, just like you said, Larry. It just so happened for my wife and I and our family that the connections that we made living here in the United States, the really true deeper connections, were ethnically very mixed. I would argue that we have more people of color in our circle of friends than Caucasian white people, and this is—I think—by happenstance maybe to a certain degree but also to our surroundings. We live in the Southeast of the United Stated, lived in the Chattanooga, Tennessee area for more than a decade, and now in Atlanta for the past five years and change.
I’m a minority in my neighborhood, right? I am surrounded by people of color. We met another African American family years ago that we befriended, and we got really close—closer than your superficial type of friendship, like breaking bread, hanging out til way past midnight, and having all these brave conversations. One of these brave conversations was me addressing my friend Aaron, saying, “Hey, Aaron, we hang out quite a bit, and every time we hang out as groups it appears that my wife and I are the only white people you hang out with.” I kind of jokingly said, “Are we your token white people?”
Larry Baker: (laughs)
Christian Höferle: And he laughed and said, “No, you’re the white people we hang out with because you’re the only white men who would dare ask me that question the way you just phrased it.”
Larry Baker: Yeah.
Christian Höferle: And I paused for a second and because I didn’t understand. I didn’t grow up in the U.S., so I didn’t grow up with this ethnic dilemma that this country has been in for 400 years. I asked him what that meant, and he said, “Most white people in the south would’ve not phrased this question that way and probably would’ve never said it to him like this anyway for fear of being labeled as racist.” And I said, “Well, do you think I’m racist?” And he said, “No, you’re not. You asked this question out of a position of genuine curiosity.”
This is, for me, the litmus test: if you can have a conversation. It has to be a brief conversation. In my opinion, it needs to be a conversation that is not full of blanket statements. It has to be a conversation with a lot of asking and with a lot of listening, and you wanna ask from a position of heartfelt, genuine curiosity and not from a position of judgment—that is often what derails these brave conversations.
As we continued and elaborated on my question about “token white people,” my friend Aaron said a lot of the white folks that he interacted with through the course of his life in the south have what he labeled as “slavery guilt. They said they are not slaveholders, they probably will never be, and in living memory, none of their relatives wear slave owners—maybe they were 160 years ago, and they don’t wanna go there and don’t know does it matter. In today’s life, they have this hangover guilt and therefore seem to be apprehensive when interacting with POC.
That’s when I realize—and this is where I make the connection in my cross-cultural work, as it touches a lot of German-speaking Europe and English–speaking North America—I have that same feeling or a very similar emotion. I don’t have slavery guilt; I grew up with Holocaust guilt.
Larry Baker: Ah.
Christian Höferle: My generation, I’m a gen-Xer, so I feel with you Ellen; I’m in my fifties. I grew up learning about German history and about the crimes of my grandparents and great grandparents’ generation and learning about this in a very unfiltered way, meaning we took field trips to concentration camps. You walk into the “showers,” where they gas people to death. It’s something that leaves a mark on a young person, and it also teaches us—at least that’s how I view it—to be witnesses to the crime: to not be silent. I like what you said about that MLK quote, Ellen. It reminds me of that Elie Wiesel quote… Elie Wiesel the Holocaust survivor, who said, “You can’t be neutral in the light of oppression. Silence encourages the tormentor and never the tormented.” We are raised to be not silent about this, and we in Germany are raised a little different with our history than most people in the U.S. are raised in the school system, but there is this lingering guilt, some might say, that I cannot interact without inhibition when I am in touch with people of Jewish faith. I’ve overcome this now. I look at this as an obligation. I don’t feel guilt any longer. I’ve done the work. I’ve done the work with people of Jewish faith for years. I continue doing the work with people of color in the United States, and this conversation happens in the training room when we talk about crossing cultures. I confront—bravely, I would argue–German-speakers with their history and how we might be able to draw parallels to U.S. history. I confront my U.S. audiences with their history and draw a parallel to European history. So it does enter that space. It was a long answer, and I hope it, it did some of the things you wanted to know.
Larry Baker: Christian, you’ve literally captured what the Black or African American community has been begging our white brothers and sisters to do: to embrace that history and confront it. It’s not about what happened in the past—it’s important to understand that–but what do you do from here on out. I think far too often, the resolution has been let’s not talk about it and hopefully it’ll go away. Well, that really hasn’t worked out. I’m so glad that you take some of those parallels between the Nazi Germany experience and the Jewish experience with the African American experience in America because the reality is some of those frameworks came from the Jim Crow segregation laws in America. So there are literal connections to that experience with the American experience.
Christian Höferle: Yeah. Nazis looked exactly at the Jim Crow laws as did South African apartheid.
Larry Baker: Absolutely. Ellen, I don’t wanna keep you out of this because I know you have some global reach as well. How do you tie in discussing global events with multicultural teams? Talk to me about some of the things that you’ve done, and again, we could take it from the aspect that they worked or “Yeah, maybe we shouldn’t have done it that way. “
Ellen Bailey: Yeah. I actually don’t have a ton to add here. I think that when I mentioned earlier those open safe spaces that we create, they are global and they address global issues. It’s not just we’re a particular population that we’re favoring, so to speak, or giving more attention to as things go on across the globe. We create this safe space hoping that people will have the brave conversation, I guess, is the way to put that.
What I would say though, to what Christian said… I think Christian you nailed it because when you go into these conversations, it is actually not about you. It is not about me. It is about the other person: the group of people. We need to listen and learn. You gotta get over your fear. It ain’t about you, so listen and learn so that we understand the history—we understand that individual’s experience—so that we aren’t putting them in a bubble or we’re not standardizing all people are this or that. Truly understand their individual experience and their culture and understand the history and where they intersect so that we can learn and collectively then get better. Because if we don’t go into it with a learning mindset and we don’t seek to understand and listen, then it’s all for naught. That’s not then a brave conversation at all. That is lip service, and that’s saying that we care but not demonstrating Larry Baker: Amazing.
Christian Höferle: Yep, right on.
Larry Baker: That is such an insight. I think that that’s dead on the money. You know, one of the things that I like to do with these podcasts is to make sure that we are giving folks things that when they hear this, that they can actually go off and apply into real world situations.
So Ellen, I’m gonna start off with you and I’d like for you to give me some advice for… what are some good first steps that somebody can do that really wants to try to create these brave spaces? What are some things that they should probably think about to make this successful? Ellen, if you could gimme some insights on that…
Ellen Bailey: Sure, absolutely. I will list three things. First, think about what is going on in the world right now that people need to have that brave conversation about. First identify that topic, that issue, that challenge, whatever it is. Then two, you demonstrate it. You be the one that leads. Regardless of who you are on this call, somebody’s gotta be first. You step up, and you find a teammate, a colleague, a group of people in your organization where you can demonstrate this with. It could be you pulling in one colleague and having a conversation one-on-one and then sharing the output with your team. It could be in a weekly or biweekly team meeting, and you ask for people to partner with you on this first engagement because somebody has to be first. The third is tied to that, which is what I just mentioned, is it has to be visible. It’s actually, honestly, not enough to do the good work and have the brave conversations if people don’t hear about them, see them, and see the impact that they have. Then it’s almost like you just did it in secret, and so they need to be visible, to be honest with you, to be impactful. Those are kind of my top three “get started” pieces of advice.
Larry Baker: Amazing, amazing. Thank you so much for that. Christian, same question to you: advice, things to consider before beginning…
Christian Höferle: Ellen said one person has gotta be first, and in order to create a movement, somebody has to be second because the second person is who starts to movement, right? My work often reaches leadership, so I implement this best practice with leaders in organizations saying, “You need to be the one stepping up. “Let me backpedal this a little bit…
I’m brought into these conversations as an outside consultant, so I sometimes am in a position to guide leadership or to mentor and coach and somewhat direct leadership into new best practices. That’s when I make that instructive recommendations that you are the one in charge. You are the nominal leader of this group. This is upon you to be the first one to step up and create that conversation. We’ve done simple exercises that have been around for decades that still seem to work. We do this once a week, maybe some organizations do it daily: the team sits around the table or in a circle or however for the format they choose and they go around the room and say, “What I would like to say is ‘blank, blank, blank.’” Then they fill it in with a minute or two or three and then hand it off to the next person. The next person receives that without comment, without judgment, without pushing it—just says, “Thank you, and what I would like to say is ‘blank, blank, blank, blank.’” This gives everybody the same equal chance of contributing to a conversation.
From that, as a leader, you can choose which of these topics you would like to engage more in and enroll your team into having a bigger conversation around the suggested things that were being brought up. Again, for me goes back to the curiosity. If it happens as a forced, top-down approach: “We need to talk about this, and we need to do some DNI and we need to… we need to…” The word needing to comes from a space of scarcity, right? I need something because I don’t have it. If you feel you need it, then it’s probably you do, and it’s probably not the right energy to begin this conversation with. If we can create this environment of “Hey, we have things that we would like to address. What might be the best ways to go about this within our group? What works for us as a group may not work for the next group over, so let’s find our way.” This is again a longwinded answer that doesn’t give you a template answer or a template structure. I’m a fan of customization and this is how we’ve been successful.
Larry Baker: Yeah, and Christian, that’s a great point because there’s really no magic bullet, right? Because if it were, someone would have already created it and put it into a format and a pill or whatever, and give you the magical steps. You have to be able to customize it for different organizations. And that really leads me to one more question that I’d like for each of you to chime into because I don’t want the listeners to think, “Oh, my goodness. This is super simple. We just do Ellen’s three steps, or we just do Christian’s this, that, or the other.” But there are some difficulties in creating these brave spaces.
And I’ll start with you, Christian. Tell me some of those difficult situations that you’ve had to address, and what did you do to address it? And then I’ll ask Ellen to chime in as well.
Christian Höferle: Well, just from a corporate perspective, the difficulty is that we don’t have time for that, or I can’t pull my people away from the desk for something like this. It it’s usually economic reasons that are either what they think is the reason or just a pretext for something else.
Much of the work that we do is often labeled by outsiders as “soft skills work,” and this makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up—actually all my hair stand up—because none of this is soft. I struggle with the terminology because soft implies weak. Soft is juxtaposed to hard, and hard is important, right? That’s bottom-line relevant. These are the relevant organizational and economic skills. Soft is nice to have, and maybe if we have time and a budget for this. I make the case to my clients without these so-called soft skills, none of your hard skills will work because if you cannot communicate in your team, if you cannot unearth the discomfort and look at it and resolve it, it will linger on. It will inhibit your success. It will be bottom-line relevant.
Larry Baker: Absolutely.
Christian Höferle: For me, it’s not “soft skill.” It’s a power skill. What we do are power skills, and this has been my mission for the past couple years to drive this home with my corporate audience, that the attitude towards our work moves away from something that is either forced upon them by social events or current events. Know that is actually something that will positively affect their economic outcomes if they address it proactively. That’s my two cents.
Larry Baker: Yeah, and Christian, I love how you had the same issue or the reaction when someone called it soft skills because when I was in corporate America and they referred to it as soft skills, my immediate response is “No, these are core skills.” We always are combating that connotation with “This is the fluffy stuff. The feel good.” But what you don’t realize is if you don’t have this, you’re not gonna get to those hardcore skills or whatever that you’re looking for.
So Ellen, you’re up.
Ellen Bailey: That’s exactly right. Yeah, yeah, yeah. The HPR article by Robin Elie and David Thomas, I’m paraphrasing the title, but it’s something like “Enough with the Business Case.” Nope. Unfortunately, we still have to present that day in and day out. I wish that was the case, but it’s just not. I think, to me, I go back to the word fear. I think that there’s the fear of having the brave conversations, but that’s not the kind of fear I’m talking about. I am talking about the majority having a fear of some sort of loss or something being taken away or losing something.
Larry Baker: Yes.
Ellen Bailey: It is not a zero sum gain. We can have these brave conversations, and I have to present the business case regularly to encourage people to have these brave conversations so that we can all elevate together. Still tying it back unfortunately to that business case because exactly what Christian said, if you don’t leverage the brain power of your team and create the space and the opportunity for them to share up their brain power, then you’re not gonna get to where you need to be. Period. It is continuing to present the business case so that people, even if they’re not feeling it, are honestly kind of forced to give over that fear and embrace these brave conversations so that we can excel in the business, which will also then create sustainable.
Larry Baker: Amazing. That is so spot on, Ellen, and everything that you’re saying, it really resonates with me. As we come towards the close of our time, I’m gonna give each one of you space to have a closing thought. If you could sum up this whole conversation that we’re having today, what would you want to instill in our listeners?
That would be something like your aspirational goal or your closing thought or something to motivate individuals to engage in these brave conversations. Ellen, and I’ll start with you and then Christian.
Ellen Bailey: Sure. We, every single person listening, every single person on the globe, owns this change, so it takes every single one of us. If we can each—be the first, be the second—proactively have and encourage these brave conversations, that is what will make the difference. That is my hope—it’s not my job as the black leader of diversity and culture…
Larry Baker: Yes.
Ellen Bailey: …but every single one of us own this, and we all are willing to have these brave conversations.
Larry Baker: Thank you so much, Ellen. Christian, your turn: closing thought.
Christian Höferle: It’s all right on, Ellen. It’s only an inclusive conversation if we all take part in it.
Ellen Bailey: If we all do it, right? (laughs)
Christian Höferle: Exactly. So I will close this off with kind of the house rules for both my family and in business. It’s basically based on the book by Don Miguel Ruiz; the book is called The Four Agreements. Some of you might be familiar with it. Don Miguel Ruiz says the four agreements are kind of the guideline of efficient, non-violent human interaction. Number one is be impeccable with your words: that means speak with integrity, say only what you mean. Number two: don’t take anything personally because nothing that others do is because of you, it has everything to do with them. Number three: do not make assumptions because we know what happens when we assume. You’ve all seen those circles around ass and you and me, right?
Larry Baker: (laughs)
Christian Höferle: Number four is always do your best, and what is your best today may not be the same as it was yesterday. In the U.S., we have this fixation with breaking our personal best every day, which is breaking our backs literally. Always doing your best is best on what is possible with the resources you have available at that given moment. These are the four agreements that seem to work well for us and that we’ve been instilling with our clients. Be impeccable with your word. Don’t take anything personally, do not make assumptions, and always do your best.
Larry Baker: Yeah, that’s some great parting thoughts, Christian and Ellen. I wanna share just kind of, in my perspective, my overriding wish. I do believe that I see a lot of correlation with the statements that both of you made to close out, but for me personally I really want a bunch of people who are interested in becoming what I call “accomplices to me” to get it wrong because I promise them they’re going to get it wrong, and they’re going to get it wrong likely more than once.
But hear me when I say this, please get it wrong for me. Be wrong on my behalf. I want you to try stuff. I want you to learn stuff. I want you to make attempts. I want you to fail. I want you to be a person that embraces the discomfort of not knowing, of not even being certain of not understanding, and then I want you to be motivated enough to learn and get better.
I promise you, if you have that authenticity—if you have that true curiosity—I am going to give you grace if you give me effort. That’s exactly what I’m thinking about, and I think all of our statements really tied in to that concept today.
I am so thankful and grateful that, Ellen and Christian, you decided to take this time out of your extremely busy schedules and to provide this insight to our listeners. I thank you, thank you, thank you so much for your participation and the wisdom and the knowledge that you shared. This was truly inspirational. Thank you both so much.
Ellen Bailey: My pleasure.
Christian Höferle: Thank you. Honored to be here.
Larry Baker: All right. Thank you both.
And to all of you that are listening, we wanna know what were your biggest takeaways from this conversation? Please share them with us on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn at Language and Culture Worldwide or LCW.
Brave Conversations with LCW Live: Let’s talk about religious inclusion in the workplace
Published on: August 15, 2022
While a person’s faith or non-faith is a deeply personal experience, it is also part of the authentic, intersectional identity they bring to the workplace. Yet, many organizations do not consider this important part of workers’ identities outside the Christian faith. In practicing cultural competency, it is crucial that organizations move beyond religious tolerance and toward inclusion—especially for non-Christian faiths and non-faiths—to ensure equitable policies for their diverse communities.
In this conversation, Culture Moments host Larry Baker (he/him) and DEI consultant Rahimeh Ramizany (she/her) delve into the complexities of faith in the workplace, drawing on Rahimeh’s experience as a consultant, speaker, DEI expert, and multiethnic, neurodiverse, visibly Muslim American woman.
Show Notes & Highlights
6:00 Rahimeh explains why religion is integral in DEI conversations
10:33 Larry breaks down what privilege really means
13:31 Rahimeh shares her intersectional experience with both privilege and disadvantage
23:26 Rahimeh debunks monolithic Muslim stereotypes
33:23 Rahimeh gives examples and tips about including a diversity of faiths in the workplace
48:23 Rahimeh introduces a video about problematic Muslim tropes in media
55:26 Rahimeh speaks to dismantling white, Christian supremacy
57:58 Larry defines the concept of “stereotype threat”
Larry Baker: Hello everyone, and welcome to the Culture Moments podcast. I’m your host, Larry Baker, and I am thrilled to have you join us for our second season called “Brave Conversations with LCW.” In these episodes, you’ll hear from a panel of guests from specific communities offering a range of perspectives on the past two years. We’ll hear about their own experiences as well as their insights on what has changed and, more importantly, what needs to change to move equity forward.
As we all know, so much has shifted and changed over the past two years. And for many of us, we’re still in recovery from a very difficult 24 months.
So hello everyone, and welcome to Brave Conversations with LCW. I am your host, Larry Baker, and I am thrilled to welcome you to this livestream session. Each month we will be bringing you or we will make space for some timely and extremely important conversations that we hope will help educate you, generate some discussion, and help you to be able to take some actionable items back to your organization and in your daily lives. In case you do not know or you’re unfamiliar with who LCW is, we are a global diversity, equity, and inclusion training, consulting, and translation firm: we simply partner with organizations to help them develop global mindsets to help them develop their skills and their systems to succeed culturally in an ever changing and diverse world.
And today we are super excited to be talking about religious inclusion in the workplace: why it’s important, why it matters, and how you can actually keep that meaning in your workplaces, in your programs that you design, each and every year. So today I am thrilled to be joined by Rahimeh Ramezany, and she is an expert, a DE&I subject matter expert at Rahema… I’m sorry.
Rahimeh Ramezany: No worries.
Larry Baker: Rahimeh Ramezany Consultancy. And Rahimeh, thank you so much for being here today, and I’m super, super excited to have you speak on this topic from a personal level, and to provide us with all of your wisdom and your knowledge. I’m gonna give you an opportunity to introduce yourself and talk about your criteria, your competencies, and all your incredible information in a moment.
But before we jump into that conversation, I just wanna let you all know that after our discussion, we’re gonna be answering some of your questions, and that’s going to be an extremely important moment for you to engage with us, to engage with the questions that you have. So please, please, please do not hesitate to ask us those questions.
So, I am going to go ahead and give you the opportunity, Rahimeh, to introduce yourself and tell everyone all about you. Rahimeh, if you will.
Rahimeh Ramezany: Thank you, Larry, so much, and thank you all for having me. It is truly an honor and a privilege to be here and speaking with you all. I love livestreams and being able to engage with folks.
My name is Rahimeh Ramezany. I use she/her pronouns. I am a DEI practitioner, which I just use to like blanket all the things: the consultant, the trainer, the subject matter expertise, the content creator, and so on. I specifically focus on Muslim inclusion and equitable access in predominantly non-Muslim spaces, and incorporating considerations of religion within existing DEI efforts.
So that’s a little bit of my background. I come to this work with a master’s degree in intercultural communication, and I pair that with DEI work, which I love really the balance and the marriage of those two fields. I feel like they just offer so much to each other. As anyone who has heard me speak knows I am absolutely a talker, so I will stop there. Because you know, Larry could just like leave and I would just talk and I would have an amazing time. Like, I’d have an amazing time, but I feel bad. And I will try and control that. So Larry, thank you so much.
Larry Baker: No, absolutely not. Rahimeh, that is the reason why I am so excited to have you to be a part of this conversation because I know that passion that you have, and this is going to benefit our audience, but thank you.
Rahimeh Ramezany: Thank you. That is such a nice way of putting it.
Larry Baker: I try to make everyone feel welcome. We’re just gonna jump right into this because I want to kick us off by having you respond to the question of why is it important that we remember religion as we’re thinking about diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Rahimeh Ramezany: Oh, let’s get into it. So the idea being is that in DEI, we look at the diversity of identities of folks being represented in an organization or in a space. We look at… do they have inclusive and equitable access to that space, if they contribute ideas, if they have feedback – especially critical feedback – about how the organization can do its work better to be more inclusive of them as human beings and individuals that they are and their families and their lives and their customers and clients who are similarly a part of that identity group. DEI focuses mostly on race and gender, and also following that kind of secondarily sexual orientation, and I’m seeing neurodiversity come up a lot and disability come up a lot… all of which are very important identity groups to discuss and have attention and make sure that they are included and represented in organizations equitably. Also on top of that, so like an “and” not a “let’s compete with each other for the one DEI spot and then everyone else is incredibly privileged” – no, we’re gonna move away from the competitive aspect of things – intersectionally-wise, all these people have a religious identity of some kind. Not all, let me correct myself: most people in the world.
And especially, a lot of companies that employ most of the world’s employees are multinational. The world is very international: people are traveling all over all the time, they’re working with partners. they’re working with suppliers from other organizations from other countries, and so on. Around the world – I’m born and raised in the United States. My context is mostly in the United States – but even looking at companies that do work internationally, most people around the world identify with some sort of faith or religious practice of some kind. I know in the United States and in the West, New Age spirituality, or like a spiritual practice, is also gaining ground, and that is also something to respect and allow people to identify with and bring into their workplace as we see a human being in their holistic self. Not check your identities at the door, which of course we all hopefully understand is code for ignore your non-white parts, try to ascribe and assimilate to whiteness as much as possible, and then when you go home, like on your own time, you can actually be who you are.
Larry Baker: Pick it back up again.
Rahimeh Ramezany: Yeah. No, no, no, no. We’re not having that anymore. White folks have a place, absolutely, in the world, in this space. However, they’re one of many identities, and those of us who are not white or Christian or from a privileged identity should be able, especially if you’re engaged in DEI work… If you’re not engaged in DEI work, and you think DEI is stupid and all that, that’s a completely separate conversation which we’re not having today. And I personally have a hard time with those conversations.
But yeah, the idea being that most people in the world have some sort of religious, spiritual, faith identity, and being able to bring that into the workplace as they choose, cuz some people really don’t want to, but some people really would like to as a source of getting to know other people and understanding authentic selves and breaking stereotypes.
Larry Baker: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you so much, Rahimeh, for kicking us off. You said a couple of things that I really just can’t let you just say it in passing because there are two things that I really want to bring out.
Rahimeh Ramezany: Give it to me.
Larry Baker: First of all, you talked about bringing our true, authentic selves, which we are coming to realize that there are so many different points of intersectionality, right? So we want to make sure that we realize that, like you said, religion is such a critical aspect in many people’s lives that we have to be respectful for that.
And you also mentioned the fact that there is this privilege that tends to be associated with the Christian faith. Now I definitely want to clarify what we mean by privilege. And if you allow me the opportunity, I’m gonna let you jump in and talk about that intersectionality piece.
Rahimeh Ramezany: Yeah. Yeah.
Larry Baker: When it comes to privilege, please understand that we are not saying that your life was easier, right? We are not saying that your life was easier. What we subscribe to, that we need to think about privilege, is that everybody that accomplished something great in life had to go through something. Nobody that has accomplished anything had it easy. So we’re not trying to associate privilege with being easy.
What we are saying when we talk about privilege is that there are certain things that you didn’t have to go through, which represent your privilege. And as we talk about this space of honoring different religions as a Christian, there are certain things that I don’t have to go through that someone from a different religion has to go through.
So talk to me a little bit about that piece on intersectionality and how you view the privilege towards Christians, as opposed to some of the challenges with different religions.
Rahimeh Ramezany: Yeah, absolutely. Privilege is a really sticky topic, and I understand why we are not taught to engage on this topic. Again, people take it as a personal attack: “Are you saying that my life is easy? My life has been so difficult! How could you possibly say that?” I know for myself, when I talk about DEI-related stuff, I don’t call it necessarily DEI in Muslim spaces. The Muslims in my personal life tend to be immigrants or children of immigrants. I do want to be very clear that not all Muslims in the United States are immigrants, so please, let’s break that stereotype. However, I am saying that in my world, my personal world, I am one Muslim, and most of the Muslims that I am around are generally immigrants or children of immigrants. Okay, we can hold those things at the same time, yes?
Larry Baker: Absolutely.
Rahimeh Ramezany: Especially when interacting with immigrants and trying to talk about privilege and anti-black racism or stuff like that, they’re like, “Are you kidding me? I am an immigrant in this country!” Especially if they’re a Muslim immigrant, especially if they’re brown, especially if they have an accent, especially if they have a Muslim-ish – whatever that means – name, all these other things… they have so many areas of disadvantage that they have faced so much, literally, oppression in their lives. Sometimes they’ve been physically attacked. All of these things, and also, yes, we can have privilege.
Using myself as an example, you can see that I’m incredibly lacking in melanin. Very pale. I have hazel eyes. And so even though it would be very easy for me to just get up on speaking engagements and be like, “I’m a Muslim woman and I wear a head scarf,” people can look at me across the street, and if they don’t like Muslims, they can come and attack me. And I’m a woman in a very sexist world. And what have you. Also, I have ADHD, which I learned this year. I have areas of disadvantage. However, the fact that I am either white-passing or racially white – I’m honestly a little confused but multiethnic – that doesn’t change the fact that I have a level of privilege: I speak with an American accent, a Californian-American accent; I am a US citizen so I am currently living in the country of my birth and I hold citizenship; I have a passport in this country; and so on. I don’t have to worry about getting kicked out of the country. I don’t have to worry about my employment and if I apply for jobs and I have to check the little box that I need sponsorship. I don’t need to do that like so many areas of privilege that I have. And that doesn’t mean, again, that none of the areas of disadvantage that I have just like disappear, but then also the areas of privilege that I do have I need to take account for those things. Because if all I do is focus on my areas of disadvantage is that I am actively ignoring folks who do share my areas of disadvantage and also have further areas of disadvantage.
For instance, I like to call on my Muslim sisters in faith who are black, especially if they wear a head scarf. They have a completely different experience. They have anti-black racism and sexism and Islamophobia… and, and, and, right?
Larry Baker: Mm-hmm
Rahimeh Ramezany: So me being like, “Oh, we are the same.” No, we’re not the same.
Larry Baker: Absolutely.
Rahimeh Ramezany: So, anyway, having said that… you can see, I’m very comfortable talking about this because I see it as where I have privilege are areas where I can actively take steps, utilize that privilege to make it easier and level the playing field for others who don’t have that privilege. And of course, if they want to speak up, passing the mic very readily, making sure that sometimes you’re just controlling the trolls in their internet comments section or in person or whatever, supporting them using that privilege because we know, unfortunately, human beings. The way our brains work is that we like and are more likely to listen to folks who we identify with. We see as, “Oh, you’re similar to me. I’m more likely to listen to you.” Great. So folks who identify looking like me, who wouldn’t necessarily listen to a black Muslim sister in faith, I can use that privilege knowing that this is something that I can do, and it is a responsibility that I have, having said that with privilege… remind me of the question?
Larry Baker: No, it was just… you touched on it: how you were saying how you have to truly understand privilege, right?
Rahimeh Ramezany: Yeah.
Larry Baker: And it’s not saying that it was easy for you. It’s just realizing that there are certain things that I don’t have to go through, but I use the privilege that I have to uplift that group that I am in association with or fellowship with, or however you want to frame. So you definitely continue to bring out that point on privilege, but I did want you to touch on, because you’ve gone through the gamut of some of the pieces where you intersect. Where you talked about “Yeah, I have privilege because of this, but because I’m this as well, that’s a little bit more of an obstacle for me.” So talk about how that intersectionality piece plays in, on top of being a Muslim or following Islam. How would you address that?
Rahimeh Ramezany: Yeah. So the idea with intersectionality is that all of us are made up of a collection of identities that you can’t piece out: in this moment I’m Muslim, in this moment I’m a woman in this moment I’m American, in this moment I’m ADHD… and all of these moments are separate moments like that. Again, I’m just using myself as an example. That’s not a thing. I’m all of those things all at the same time, right? And sometimes given the situation, I might feel certain identities more.
If I am abroad – again, I’m in the United States, born and raised – if I am abroad outside of the United States, I feel my Americanness a lot more if I am in a Muslim space, depending on what kind of Muslim space. So for instance, another part of my identity that I don’t really talk a lot about and I’m kind of playing with how much do I wanna talk about it or not… I am a Shia Muslim, and that is a minority within Muslims in general. So it’s like a minority within a minority, and there’s a lot of stereotypes and discrimination and violence against Shia Muslims, even within Muslims.
So if I am in a Muslim space, but it is majority Sunni or not Shia, then I am very aware of my Shia, right? And everyone that I interact with, like if I tell them, are they gonna hate me? Are they gonna kick me out? What’s gonna happen here? They seem to like me… and I am sharing this with the non-Muslims, knowing and expecting that you are not going to weaponize what I’m telling you and sharing with you very vulnerably about something inside going on in my community to then attack us. Okay, we’re not doing that.
Larry Baker: Yeah.
Rahimeh Ramezany: So, no, cuz that’s a really real thing like… I would love to be able to give a more nuanced approach to like talking about Muslims around the world. Like, are Muslims perfect people? Of course not, of course not. We have our problems. We have our issues. We need to go to therapy. All the things. But I, you know… like me and other Muslims who speak about being Muslim have a really hard time giving a more nuanced perception of the holistic view of the things that are not great that Muslims do. Some Muslims do and the good things, right? Because it’s like, “Are you gonna then take my words and attack my own community?”
Larry Baker: Exactly.
Rahimeh Ramezany: Because I’ve admitted that of course we’re not perfect human beings. We’re not attacking my own community with my words, thank you very much. So anyway, if I am in a Shia Muslim environment, then probably my ethnicity and racial identity is very prominent to me. So depending on where you are, any given person, you might feel different parts of your identity a little bit more or less at a time. If I’m standing in a room full of dudes, like I’m the only woman there, especially as someone who wears a head scarf called a hijab, I can feel that a lot. You know, am I getting mansplained? Am I having to prove that I’m not an oppressed Muslim woman? I know in grad school… if anyone who went to grad school with me is watching this or ever watches this, I am so incredibly sorry. I’m so sorry. I was so talkative. You think I’m talkative now? You think I’m obnoxiously vocal now? I would not shut up, and I realize it took me a long time of reflection and going to these kinds of like sessions where I’m learning about identities and internalized oppression and stuff like that. I realized that I had internalized this stereotype about Muslim women as being oppressed and quiet and meek and obedient and all that. And I took it upon myself without even knowing that I needed to break that stereotype to all the non-Muslims I went to school with. I was super talkative and super vocal, and every single time the teacher had something to say, I had to be the very first person to say… like, just like ramping that up. And it took me literally years – and even now, still – but years of being like, “You don’t actually have to say something if you don’t have anything to say, or giving other people a chance to talk and all of those things. So in that way, I will give you a chance to talk now.
Larry Baker: No, but Rahimeh, what you’re addressing is something that’s referred to as stereotype threat, right? Because you are so concerned with living up to the stereotype that you’re going to overcompensate to disprove it. So, you touch upon some concepts that are near and dear to my heart. I’m not gonna let you go because there are some things that you were saying in that conversation that I have to dig into a lot more specifically. You start talking about some misconceptions, so I want to give you the space right now to debunk some things about Islam or what it means to be Muslim. So take this space and do what you will.
Rahimeh Ramezany: Oh, okay. I personally, not all Muslims will do this, I am one of estimated 1.8 billion Muslims in the world. 24% estimated people in the world are Muslim. 24%. There’s a huge percentage of people. I am one person. Yes, I’m in community with many Muslims. I actively read and consume content around the lives of other Muslims so that I can have a more rounded approach. But do I know everything about Muslims? Of course not, and I would never say that. And I don’t want people coming kind of like if you were to take a one-hour anti-racism training like, “I’m done! I’m not racist. I have no biases anymore. It’s over.” No, no. So, okay. So watching this,
Larry Baker: (laughs) Unless, of course, it’s an offering from LCW… then that could truly be the case!
Rahimeh Ramezany: Naturally, naturally. Listening to one Muslim – whether it’s me, whether it’s someone else – that’s never going to be “Oh, I know everything that there’s to know, that I need to know as a non-Muslim in an interfaith dialogue exchange sort of way. All I need to know about Muslims is this one person.”
Even as much as I and others try and educate ourselves and speak in general for other groups and try and be representative as much as possible, we’re still gonna leave out a lot things, right? And that’s also a really great flag for you to watch out for when you listen to speakers: are they giving the impression that all that you need to do is listen to them about their group and then you’re done? That’s gonna be problematic.
So having said that, the idea with stereotypes… I distinguish between Muslims and Islam, Islam being obviously the religion that Muslims follow. Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, what have you… those are the names of the religions themselves, and I know some folks get the name of the religion and the people who follow Islam mixed up because in English, it sounds like a completely different word. It starts with a different letter. However in Arabic… the Arabic language is integral to the heart of the religion of Islam. It’s encouraged but not required to learn Arabic if you are not Arab yourself. And of course, also keeping in mind as far as stereotypes that not all Muslims are Arab, but not all Arabs are Muslim. There are Arabs of all different identities religiously, right? For transparency, I am not Arab. Please don’t meet an Arab in your life and be like, “Oh, you’re Muslim!” No, we’re not making that assumption. But then also if you meet a Muslim, “Oh, you’re Arab, or you must speak…” No, that’s not necessarily the case.
Muslims are incredibly, incredibly diverse, and the people who follow the religion – and I’m sure anyone who follows any sort of spiritual faith, religious teachings – knows the lessons “be a good person,” “don’t steal,” “don’t kill people,” “honor people’s rights,” “generosity,” “kindness,” “charity.” There’s the rulings and stuff, and then there are the people who do things for many different reasons. We have bad days, and we are not our best versions of ourselves.
There are also, again, 1.8 billion Muslims, so there are, as I’ve already mentioned, different sects of the religion, which like have slightly different – mostly it’s the same teachings –but slightly different. For instance, if you watch me praying – which like, it’s kind of weird… please don’t watch me pray – but if you were to see a Shia person pray, and then you were to see a Sunni person pray, it would look slightly different. It varies in religious identities specifically, but then there’s their ethnicity or their nationality, their generation, their socioeconomic status, their educational attainment level, their gender, on and on. And then even if they ascribe to a certain part of the religion, then there’s also folks who don’t live and don’t follow the religion in the way that they have chosen to… I’m not saying that right. What I’m trying to say is that they might believe in a certain thing, and they might not follow all of the precepts, like all the followings and guidance.
Larry Baker: Absolutely.
Rahimeh Ramezany: Right. I know for myself, like when I’m out in the street going grocery shopping, getting a prescription, what have you, I try and be a good, nice, decent human being just as one does. But sometimes I have a bad day. Sometimes I’m really tired. And I really, really worry about like… if I’m not like actively smiling, actively a cheerful, happy person, that this is the only time someone’s gonna see a Muslim, like identify that person as a Muslim. Cuz of course, a lot of Muslims you don’t know, whether they’re a woman who doesn’t choose to wear hijab – which is within her rights, not a judgment on that – just a fact like if a woman is not wearing hijab, there’s no way of identifying. And then a Muslim man, right? A lot of folks like Muslims are very much racialized as brown people.
However, even keeping in mind that there’s a huge percentage of Muslims who are black or African American, of African descent. Even just speaking in the United States, an estimated 30% of American Muslims are black. That’s a huge percentage, right?
Larry Baker: Wow. Yes, it is.
Rahimeh Ramezany: And yet it is all Muslims… And honestly, again, keeping in mind for any Muslims watching this now, please don’t weaponize this against my community. Like a lot of brown, white, non-black Muslims forget, don’t acknowledge… it doesn’t occur to them that there are black Muslims, which is also incredibly problematic.
So Muslims are generalized as brown, and that’s the thing with Islamophobia. Islamophobia is hatred and discrimination and active violence against Muslims and also people who are perceived to be Muslim. Many years ago there was an Arab man who’s Christian in some Midwest state in the United States who was killed by his neighbor. And it was ruled an act of Islamophobia because the neighbor thought that this Arab man was Muslim, even though he wasn’t. The first person to be killed in retaliation for 9/11 was a Sikh man, not even Muslim. Sikh. And that is considered an of Islamophobia because the person attacking him and murdering him…(sighs) sorry, it’s difficult to talk about this kind of stuff.
Larry Baker: Mm-hmm
Rahimeh Ramezany: Um… they thought he was Muslim. As we all know, people who have isms and hatred towards other people… “I need to just defend my own in-group, and anyone outside of that in-group who doesn’t look like me, speak like me, live by me, is literally evil. And I must kill them, attack them, wipe them off the face of the earth.”
They don’t really care. They’re not thinking about like, “Hey, can you fill out this survey, explaining your identities before I attack you?”
Larry Baker: Exactly, exactly. Yep. “It’s because you don’t look like me, you don’t sound like me, and I just don’t even want to take the time to understand the difference. So I’m just going to use my lack of knowledge or my ignorance and just attack you from what I perceive.”
Rahimeh Ramezany: Yeah.
Larry Baker: You speak a lot of scenarios that as a black or African American in this country, it just resonates. It doesn’t matter in regards to the specificity of my uniqueness within this black body: I’m just seen as this. Period. So I definitely can sympathize with that.
I do wanna move to a couple of questions because I want folks to get something to use in their workplace. So I’m gonna ask you to give me some advice.
Rahimeh Ramezany: I love giving advice. What? Tell you what to do?
Larry Baker: Absolutely. You feel free! Because one of the questions that we tend to get specifically when you’re doing DE&I work… “Well, why do we need to bring religion into the workplace? What does it have to do with us meeting goals?” So what advice do you have for listeners that want to take that first step towards accommodating all faiths and non-faiths of their coworkers?
Rahimeh Ramezany: Yeah. I would go back to what I was saying earlier about the diversity of human experience. So of course, for me talking about the diversity of Muslims and that I am one Muslim, even though I do try and actively educate myself on the experience of other Muslims that are not exactly the same as myself. However, this is going to apply to all identity groups, right? Larry, please express, as a black person, you might see opinions like, “Hey, this is how I – another black person – says I want to be included or given equitable access in this way.” And you might be like, “Well, that’s not what I want.” Does that make that person wrong, or does that make you wrong? No. You’re different people and you can want different things.
Larry Baker: Right.
Rahimeh Ramezany: So if an organization really is committed to diversity, equity and inclusion, you have to understand that no group, no identity group – Muslims very much included – is a monolith. There’s great diversity, and I can stand up and give you a list of how to be equitable and inclusive of me, Rahimeh. But that’s not going to apply to everyone. So I’m going to give generalizations, but I tell you, these are generalizations. These are a good starting point so that if you don’t know anything about Muslims, if you approach a Muslim in your employee group, if you approach a Muslim who’s a client or a customer, they can see that you’ve already done the work to do some learning on your own.
Larry Baker: Exactly.
Rahimeh Ramezany: As we know, it’s incredibly problematic to go to that one person of a certain identity, tokenize them, go to them. It’s not their job to educate you on their identity. They’re just doing whatever it is that they were hired to do. And you go to them and say, “Hey, teach us about your identity.” Like… “Excuse me?” So when you do go to that person, it’s to be able to custom and tailor the accommodations and the equitable practices to their specific needs and want. You’re showing respect in that way that you’ve already done some learning on your own. Really there’s no excuse, especially in 2022 with so much information available online. There really is no excuse. I’m going to give you some generalizations. You have to get to know the people in your environment to be inclusive of them. If you have a Muslim who lives next to you in your neighborhood, even not in with the workplace, you have to get to know them as human beings. It is work. That is a part of this.
Holidays is something that people like to talk about a lot, and it has its place. I just feel like we talk a lot about it. But before moving on from holidays, of course there is Ramadan, which is a month-long practice of fasting from sunrise to sunset. It is one of the most spiritual times of the year for Muslims, and with fasting throughout the sunlight hours, you can imagine like people’s energy levels and potentially irritability or being hangry or their what-have-you is gonna change. For instance, another great example is this past Ramadan early on in the year in the spring, I saw a lot of articles coming out about like… hey, to be inclusive of Muslims, you should move your meetings to earlier on in the day. Muslims will eat a morning meal before the sun rises to give themselves a little bit of energy and hydration before they start fasting. And so the idea being, if you have meetings early on in the day, they still have some of that energy in their system before the end of the day. Okay, that totally makes sense. I’m sure there are many Muslims who would love that sort of practice. However, if you say, “Hey, I saw this article, so we’re just gonna do that and not ask the actual Muslims in your environment,” here’s another perspective: I personally am 120% a night owl. I don’t care if I’m fasting. I don’t care if I’m not fasting. Please, for the love of God, do not put meetings first thing in the morning with me. Like… you hate me? Are you bullying me? What is happening right now? You have to get to know the actual people. “Hey, I learned something that we could do! Is that something that would be helpful for you?” And have a conversation. Be respectful of them, have rapport built. Don’t just come to the person the first time you wanna talk to them and be asking very probing questions about their identities.
So there’s Ramadan and fasting and giving time off for religious holidays. At the end of Ramadan, there is a holiday called Eid al-Fitr, which unfortunately, fortunately, whatever… the Muslim calendar is on a Lunar calendar, which what that means is that we won’t know the start of Ramadan or the end of Ramadan until the new moon is sighted: the first little bit of crescent. There’s all different debates on what counts, and that’s a kind of an insider Muslim joke. (laughs) But the idea being you won’t know until the night before whether the start of Ramadan is this day or this day or this day.
Larry Baker: Oh, wow.
Rahimeh Ramezany: It’s usually like one or two days, potentially three days. And so if I’m asking, for instance, for Eid al-Fitr off, which is at the end of Ramadan, I’m not going to know the actual day until like literally the night before. I know for a workplace that might be kind of inconvenient, but if you wanna be inclusive of people, you have to bend. You can’t be like this strict, like, “No, we’re gonna force you into this box.” That’s the whole point. Alternatively, there’s also Hajj, which is the Muslim pilgrimage that all Muslims are required to complete once in their lifetime to the city of Mecca, which is in present day Saudi Arabia. Just a little bit of religious sprinkling in there… It is only required if you are financially able to do so, physically able to do so. If you are able to do it, it is required, but we don’t believe you’re gonna go to hell if you don’t do that. The same thing with fasting, if you’re physically not able to, it’s gonna affect your health… pregnant women don’t usually fast. I do know a couple Muslim women who have been pregnant who fasted given like their doctor’s approval and stuff like that. But like, if you’re sick, there’s accommodations even within the religion. That’s another subject.
Something to keep in mind as well that I’ve been seen in recent years is the Islamic new year. Muslims have their own calendar, and there’s kind of this trend going where non-Muslims will start wishing Muslims “happy new year,” and I can appreciate the sentiment. And there are many Muslims who appreciate that. However, for Shia Muslims – which I am again – the start of the new year actually is the start of a two-month mourning period. So having “happy new year, like it’s a holiday, like it’s a happy thing… the point is just don’t assume, right? Check in with the person, get to know them, keeping in mind again that there are many Muslims who would be happy to receive “happy new year.”
And there are some that don’t, and those two things exist at the same time. I’m sure there are many other opinions as well. I don’t wanna make it a binary.
I would also say something to keep in mind with workplaces – If you bring people in-person or hybrid – is that there are some workplaces that are dog-friendly. And that is an amazing thing. I love dogs. I grew up with two German shepherds. There are Muslims who don’t like dogs, just like other people. There are Muslims who are scared of dogs. There are Muslims who love dogs. There are Muslims who have dogs. There are Muslims who literally don’t care. Many opinions. Mm-hmm um, but the idea being is that from a religious standpoint of religious inclusio, is that Muslims who do do their daily prayers… There’s five prayers a day for Muslims, and if a Muslim does do their five daily prayers, one or two of those will usually fall into the normal work day. And Muslims doing their prayers have to be clean. Cleanliness is a really big part of the religion of Islam. Hopefully Muslims try – a reminder to myself to try –and keep our spaces clean, smelling good and fresh, and stuff like that. And so part of that is like, if you have a dog-friendly environment, aside from people who have allergies, – not necessarily even Muslim people who have allergies – aside from people who have been attacked or have bad experiences with dogs who might be scared, but also from a religious standpoint, dog hair and saliva is considered ritually impure.
Larry Baker: Wow.
Rahimeh Ramezany: And if we are to get dog fur or saliva, or obviously urine or poop or anything like that on us, we cannot do our prayers in those clothing. So for instance, one of my previous jobs… one of our execs would bring her dogs to the office. And that’s the thing… I appreciate her being able to do that, but on the other hand, I had to explain I would do my prayers in like a little private area, and I had to ask her, “Hey, could we make sure that the dogs don’t come in this area?” And she was totally cool with it. Ahe’s like, “Oh yes, thank you for telling me.” So just to keep in mind, if you have a dog-friendly environment.
Alcohol is a really big thing. It is generally accepted amongst most Muslims that alcohol is something that is not allowed to consume. There are Muslims who do consume alcohol. There are Muslims who go to bars. I had an executive director of a past job tell me that he knew a Muslim family who owned a winery. So there are many different Muslims again. This is not about judgment like a religious debate on who is correct. The point being is that most Muslims around the world would agree that alcohol is just a no-no. If you, as a non Muslim workplace, continuously include happy hour as a thing – that’s where you rub shoulders with the boss; that’s where you are networking with senior leaders; this is where promotions are being informally laid the groundwork for; even if you are hosting a professional conference; if you’re hosting an event; if you are in grad school, especially as I understood, MBA programs, study abroad programs where a lot of students want to go clubbing and drinking in this new country… And again, the point being is not a judgment on “I’m better” or “you are better.” The point being is that if you actually want to be inclusive, then this doesn’t apply to you. You just decided you don’t wanna include people. That’s a different conversation, but if you want to be inclusive of people, you have to keep in mind that a lot of people either… so speaking from a Muslim perspective, I know there are many people with different reasons for why they don’t drink or don’t wanna be around alcohol. That is also like being inclusive of other folks who have other reasons.
But speaking about Muslim specifically, there are Muslims who will go to networking events with alcohol and feel incredibly uncomfortable. They feel like they’re selling out. They feel like they’re compromising on their values. There are Muslims who will opt out, who will just literally just not. And they’re losing out in some way, but you, yourself, are losing out as an organization from their contributions, their skills, their expertise, and who they are. The whole point is that if you’ve hired these people, you find that they are very skilled and knowledgeable and you want to make the most of their expertise, being that you want to include them.
Larry Baker: I love how, Rahimeh, you are making that connection that this isn’t just an interpersonal issue. This is a business issue, right? So the arguments for not bringing religion into the workplace… You’ve just given some valuable insights in regards to why you need to consider this in the workplace, because you may be creating situations unknowingly that are putting certain individuals at a disadvantage.”
And you know, that even relates to individuals that may have a disability around alcohol. So if you are consistently creating these environments where alcohol has to be consumed, and I’m a former alcoholic, I’m not gonna feel comfortable there. And I’m not going to be seen as promotable.
Rahimeh Ramezany: A culture pit.
Larry Baker: Yeah. Absolutely. Oh, “culture pit.” You just given my, my top pet peeve word in the entire world. So I do want to give an opportunity for us to share some information that you wanted to share. I believe you wanted us to show a video .
Rahimeh Ramezany: Yes. I don’t want you just… again, I am not the only Muslim. Honestly, I’ve been seeing this really kind of problematic trend. No one watching this is like this. I know that. But I’ve been noticing this weird trend on my social media where I post and educate about Muslims and DEI stuff like that of non-Muslims coming in and checking me about Muslim issues. Like… you don’t go here. Why are you critiquing me about my group?
Larry Baker: I get it. I get comments of, “You’re not really black.” It’s like, “Yeah, I think I’ve got that made, but thanks for sharing.”
Rahimeh Ramezany: Yeah. So I wanna promote looking and seeing other Muslims talk on the same points.
Larry Baker: Do you wanna introduce this one, Rahimeh? Like, you wanna set the scene, or is it pretty self-explanatory with the video?
Rahimeh Ramezany: Yeah. You’re gonna see there will be an intro. We’re not gonna be able to watch the full thing just for time. In the email following up this event, there’s going to be a bunch of resources including this video. So I encourage watching it honestly, especially if this is the first time you’re seeing this information, and finishing the whole video. But just the idea of seeing stereotypes in movies and film and media about Muslims. This video is a little bit dated, so some of the shows and like movies are on the older side, but I think it does a really, really good job of putting forward these stereotypes. And the idea, of course, being like especially in the United States, it is estimated that only 1% of the United States is Muslim, about 3 million or so people. So the likelihood of most people in the United States and the West if you’ve learned anything at all about Muslims it’s through the media. And so seeing the tropes that the media promotes and why people have these stereotypes and isms about Muslims… you can very clearly see that. So yeah, let’s go and see that.
Larry Baker: Awesome, thank you.
Video Clip: There’s truly no feeling of joy and recognition like when you see someone on the big screen wearing a hijab or praying, but when was the last time you actually related to a Muslim character? Here’s how to not do representation.
Trope number one: hijabis taking off their hijab for a boy. This movie trope is the most basic, most popular, and most problematic. Hijabis find bizarre ways to take off their hijab in countless dramas from Quantico to Hela, to Grey’s Anatomy, to Netflix’s Elite. This idea suggests that the hijab is oppressive in all forms, and Muslim women are in need of saving from their lifestyle of modesty. Usually the savior is a white man. Muslim women like me choose to wear the hijab. Many women wear it for different reasons, but ultimately we do it to show our faith. This is not something we need to be freed from. It frees us.
Trope number two: all Muslim countries are in desperate need of white savior. Muslim countries are not yellow, stained, and filled with terrorists at every corner. Why does Hollywood continue to portray Muslim-majority countries as war-torn and militia base? Every country has stories and cultures of their own as beautiful as the people who live there. When was the last time you saw a movie about a Muslim-majority country that was authentically portrayed? (record scratch) No, not you? How about you? Yeah, no, me neither. This movie trope is very discreet, and you may not have even noticed it before. American films tend to add a yellow filter over their shots when they depict countries stereotyped as impoverished, polluted, or war-zoned, like an Ironman 3 when Ironman heroically frees Naqvi women in a Middle-Eastern sweatshop, it’s pretty obvious there wasn’t a Naqvi in the writer’s room.
Trope number three: Muslims are all Arab and barbaric. This movie trope stereotypically depicts Muslims as Arab, barbaric, backwards, and in need of transformation. These tropes all originate from orientalism. Orientalism is how Western societies look at Asian and especially Arab societies as unmodern. A primary framework used to justify colonization, orientalist ramifications are found in every corner of our world. Disney’s Alladin, for example. The “Arabian Nights” opening song literally sings, “It’s barbaric, but hey! It’s home” along with exotifying and stereotyping nearly every woman in the film. And yes, the entire plot does surround Jasmine’s inability to choose who she wants to marry, something Islamic law explicitly forbids, and a misconception that Muslim women constantly have to fight. The merging of cultures and multiple identities into one pot ends up generalizing Muslims and brown communities. In post 9/11 era America founded easy to fall into Islamophobic beliefs because of the way orientalism was already rooted into Western consciousness.
Larry Baker: Okay. Thank you so much for sharing that, Rahimeh. I think that contained a lot of interesting information to help us understand some of the narratives that have been portrayed about this community. So what I do want to do and our time that we have… I wanted to make sure that we didn’t have any questions that we missed because we primarily talked about why it’s important to have these conversations in the workplace.
Let’s see… “What is a straightforward answer to this question? Why bring religion into the workplace? What does religion have to do with meeting our work goals?” So I think we touched up on it, or did you have anything?
Rahimeh Ramezany: I mean, just to answer in the straightforward answer, if you in your organization is engaged in DEI work, you are committed to DEI work, then part of that is allowing folks of different identities to express themselves and deconstruct the white supremacy norms that have a chokehold on our societies and our workplaces as a part of those societies. So if you want to include people, if you want to give them equitable access, if you want diverse communities and populations in your employee-base, your client-base, your customers, you have to include different identities. And if you’re talking about gender, if you’re talking about sexual orientation, if you’re talking about race, you have to include religion. Religion is a huge part of people’s identities, and most people around the world identify with some religion.
Larry Baker: Yeah. That’s great. Thank you so much, Rahimeh. Do we have any other questions? I’m not seeing any in the chat… Oh, okay.
“What can change the impression that anyone outside of a certain religion or political persuasion is the enemy of the state?” That’s a great question. “Not only in America, but across the world. In America, how can we herald freedom of religion as we face such challenges?” I’m gonna let you jump in on that one, Rahimeh.
Rahimeh Ramezany: What can change the impression that anyone outside of a certain religion or political persuasion is an enemy of the state?
Larry Baker: So the enemy of the state is essentially like the bad guy, right? This is the person that we need to protect ourselves against.
Rahimeh Ramezany: Sure, so are we saying combating Islamophobia?
Larry Baker: Probably, that’s a good way to look at that. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Rahimeh Ramezany: Okay. So in the United States, freedom of religion… Pamela, my apologies. I’m going to interpret as I understand this. I really wish I could like ask you for clarification. So the idea of freedom of religion is a part of the law of the land in the constitution of the United States. “Congress shall pass no law that prohibits, or…” uh, I forget the technical, actual word of the quote. But they can’t push religion on other people, and they can’t prevent people from freedom of expressing their religion. So if we in the United States accept that is the literal law of our land, we know that also separation of church and state is supposedly a thing. However, we can acknowledge, hopefully, that really separation of church and state only has to do with non-Christian religions. However, in Christian concerns about laws, as we have seen with the overturning of Roe vs Wade and other similar laws around banning mosques versus churches, the way we deem our holidays, we structure our work-week and so on… these are all incredibly Christian-centric. Lawmakers taking their vows and oaths on a Bible. And then, when there were the first number of Muslim senators and Congress folks being sworn in, it was just such a hullabaloo about swearing on a Quran. I was like, “Okay, but this person isn’t Christian, right? Why is this a conversation? Why is this like a controversy?” So the idea of like, we have to recognize white Christian supremacy when we see it. What are the hallmarks of it? We are constantly on the lookout for racism, anti-black racism, the isms of the world. We have to be able to learn, to recognize and see that lens of “This is favoring one group, this is the norm of another group, and how do we equitably have all groups be able to express themselves in balance?” And again, keeping in mind that yes, sometimes there will be differences of opinion. And how do we move along with agreeing to disagree?
Larry Baker: Awesome. Thank you so much, Rahimeh. I think we have maybe time for one more response. I think that someone wanted to know what is this concept of stereotype threat. It’s basically if you are primarily a member of an underrepresented group… it’s this anxiety that you feel about confirming negative stereotypes that can cause people to have self-doubt. And it often hinders their ability to perform confidently and at their maximum level. If I am concerned that people think that I have my job simply because I’m black and I don’t have the skills necessary or I’m a diversity hire, I’m going to do everything in my power not to make a mistake, to be more than competent, to be more than capable, to be on in every situation. And that can cause anxiety. It can also cause me to be sick because that’s exhausting, trying to outlive any stereotype that people have towards me. And I hope that that answered your question, Enrico, because this is a concept that we do teach.
Rahimeh Ramezany: Yeah. And just to add, thinking about again going to privilege: the idea that if you don’t have to spend this kind of energy exactly and constant vigilance of “What do people think of me? Are they going to judge me? Are they gonna judge my group? How are my children being treated?” All of this mental work and labor and emotional tax that groups have to take on. If you don’t have that, that is your privilege. That’s what privilege looks like.
Larry Baker: Yep. Absolutely. So Enrico, hopefully that helps in how we deal with stereotype threat because again, it is exhausting trying to ensure that we don’t live up to those stereotypes that they have about our group.
So Rahimeh, I am so thoroughly pleased with our time today, but understand that it just doesn’t stop here. And we truly hope that you take the advice that was shared here and some of the questions that we responded to back into your workplaces, and if you really want to partner in having these conversations, let us know. You can contact LCW at languageandculture.com.
I’m going to give Rahimeh an opportunity to plug how we reach her in a moment, but thank you so much for being a part of these Brave Conversations. And Rahimeh, if you wanna let the people know how they can reach out and be in contact with you and and promote whatever you wanna, have at it!
Rahimeh Ramezany: Thank you. Anyone who wants to find my home online… It’s my website rahimehramezany.com. Yes, unfortunately, I’m sorry. You will have to learn how to spell my name. However, on top of that, I am active on social media, especially LinkedIn. I really encourage you to follow along there. I put out free, open-source educational content about diversity, equity, inclusion, and intercultural topics specifically, and especially around Muslim inclusion and incorporating religion into diversity, equity, and inclusion topics. I try and be responsive to comments and answer questions and stuff like that as a free way to just spread the knowledge. A lot of folks just don’t have the opportunity, the privilege, to be part of an organization that has brought in a DEI speaker. If you want to bring me into your organization, of course, please do check out my services on my website.
Larry Baker: Amazing. Rahimeh, thank you. Thank you for your time and your passion on this topic.
I have truly enjoyed myself and I hope that everyone receives something out of this. So thank you so much. Have a wonderful rest of your day. Again, thank you, Rahimeh.
Rahimeh Ramezany: Thank you, Larry.
Larry Baker: And to all of you that are listening, we wanna know what were your biggest takeaways from this conversation. Please share them with us on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn at Language and Culture Worldwide or LCW.
Culture Moments: What does it mean to have a race-based conversation in different countries?
Published on: August 10, 2022
Following 2020’s racial reckoning, companies across the U.S. engaged in their own brave conversations, some for the first time. While we know that many of these conversations centered around a U.S.-centric lens, the conversations that resulted are global conversations that have transcended borders.
But how do conversations on race differ across borders and cultures? How do you approach these conversations when considering different cultural identities within one organization? What is needed to move these conversations forward? And what can you personally do in your own organization to create space for these conversations?
Culture Moments podcast host Larry Baker is joined by, Raashi Sikka (VP Global Diversity & Inclusion at Ubisoft) and Alejandro Tobolski (Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Head at Johnson & Johnson) to unpack all these topics and more.
Show Notes & Highlights
5:54: Larry starts the conversation by asking Ale and Raashi what global race-based conversations have looked like since 2020
14:02: Ale explains why socio-economic status is often intertwined with race-based conversations in Latin America
16:03: Raashi elaborates on the importance of understanding the history of the country you are having a conversation in
21:47: Ale shares how he defines the goal of his work and these conversations as “progress over perfection”
33:45: Raashi on how conversations, definitions, and even your ability to gather data change across countries
Larry Baker: Hello everyone and welcome to the culture moments podcast. I’m your host, Larry Baker. And I’m thrilled to have you join us for our second season called Brave Conversations with LCW.
In these episodes, you’ll hear from a panel of guests from specific communities offering a range of perspectives on the past two years. We’ll hear about their own experiences as well as their insights on what’s changed and more importantly, what needs to change to move equity forward.
As we all know so much has shifted and changed over the past two years, and for many of us we’re still in recovery from a very difficult 24 months.
Welcome. Today, we will be discussing what it means to have race based conversations in different countries. Following the racial reckoning of 2020 here in the United States, we saw so many companies engage in their own brave conversations. Some for the very first time. While we know that much of this conversation was had with a US-centric context, these are global conversations that have continued all over the world. But how do conversations on race and other countries differ? How do you approach these conversations when considering different cultural identities within one organization? What is needed to move these conversations forward. And then what can you personally do in your own organization to create those spaces for these necessary conversations?
So today to help us answer all of these questions and more, we are joined by two industry experts. With me today are Ale Tobolski, who is the head of diversity, equity and inclusion Latin America at Johnson and Johnson, and Raashi Sikka, who is the vice president of global diversity inclusion at Ubisoft. So thank you both for joining us today for our own brave conversation. And I’d like to kick it off by giving both of you the opportunity to give me and my listeners a brief introduction to who you are and what you do. So Raashi, I am going to ask that you kick us off.
Raashi Sikka: Awesome. Thank you, Larry. Thank you for, for having me here for this great conversation as you call it. My name is Raashi Sikka. I am the vice president of global diversity inclusion and accessibility at Ubisoft. My pronouns are she/her. I’m also the co-founder of a boutique diversity, equity and inclusion consulting practice called The Inclusion Company. I am originally from New Delhi, India, but I’ve lived and worked in different parts of the world.
I consider myself a third culture kid and that’s some of what I take into doing this work. I’m currently based in Paris. I just moved here about two and a half, three months ago. And one of my big ambitions for this year is to learn French. So that’s, that’s a little bit about me. I’m excited for this conversation.
Larry Baker: Awesome. Thank you so much, Raashi. I’m hoping that you get that opportunity to learn French as well. Ale. You’re up next? .
Alejandro Tobolski: Hi, Larry. Hi Raashi. And, and thank you for this opportunity. So I’m Alejandro Tobolski and I serve as the region lead in Latin America for diversity equity and inclusion at Johnson and Johnson. As you said I’ve been with J&J since 2003.
I held several leadership positions both here in the US where I live now, and then in South America. I’m originally from Argentina. I’m born and raised in Argentina and then I moved to Brazil, and then to the US, and I have been in my current role for five years now. My work is basically to ensure that the enterprise, the AI strategies are pulled through and implemented.
And my work is around providing expertise. Share internal and external best, best practices, and ensuring the regional relevancy of our enterprise AI strategy. So really happy to be here today.
Larry Baker: Awesome. Thank you so much, Ale. So let’s dig into one of the first questions that I’d really like for you to consider, because the reAlety is that many people associate the racial reckoning in 2020 with the US because of the murder of George Floyd and the protests that happened in the United States that followed. But we know that this was, and it continues to be, a global conversation. So I’d like to start by getting a better understanding from your own experiences.
What was happening outside the US currently, and how was it similar or maybe even different to the conversations that were happening in the United States? So Ale, if you would kick us off with your response.
Alejandro Tobolski: Sure. So, you know, as, as a leader of the AI for LATAM, I’ve seen racist topic of focus for many years, right? Really after the murder of George Floyd, I mean as examples, like, so Google search for Black Lives Matters in Brazil, reached an all time high in 2020, right. So you can see things like that. Anti-racism search reached an all time high in Mexico during the same time. So it had a huge impact.
And in addition to that, we, as a company, nearly 60% of our employees in Latin America in this case, had conversations with colleagues about racial injustice. So we, you held a series of conversations that we call, “raise your voice sessions”. So while our strategy is a global one at J&J we know it must be locally relevant and locally executed because what you said, I mean, these topics had a lot of relevance at local levels in different ways. Our global strategy or strategy pillars, if you will, are about advancing a culture of inclusion and building a diverse workforce for the future provide really a strong foundation and enable us to pivot really in order to meet the evolving need of our patients, consumers, employees, and the community. We are constantly evolving.
And when this hit in 2020 because of, as you said, the murder of George Floyd, we really acted, and again, depending on the country, the history, the culture, the many differences, we’ve seen different things happening at, at different countries.
Larry Baker: Yeah, Ale, thank you so much for that. I love that perspective that your organization is taking that even though it may be US centric that you have the realezation that there needs to be local conversations had as well. So thank you so much for that insight. Raashi, how about you from your experiences? You know, what was happening outside the US currently and how was it either similar or different to the conversations that were happening in the US?
Raashi Sikka: It’s a great question. And, and I think to contextualeze my answers, some of the answers that I give, they draw from my experience prior to joining Ubisoft. I joined Ubisoft a little over a year ago. So a couple of months after, George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter movement, which truly became global.
So I speak from my experience before my experience as a consultant and a DE&I practitioner, the conversations on race were always happening. Right. They were happening from my vantage point. They were just not happening in the places where they’re happening now or after George Floyd’s murder in the same way.
The focus on these topics has become immense. Boardrooms, corporate leadership CEOs coming together. And it’s a reckoning of sorts, right. Where people come together and say, “This is happening”. This is happening in our organizations. This is happening in society and we haven’t given it the due that we should have in the best.
That’s where I think the conversation flipped. These conversations were happening in communities of color, but they weren’t necessarily as mainstream as they are now. And that’s the ship that I’ve seen. And, you know, Ale spoke about Google search in Brazil and in Mexico, one of the other pieces that I noticed was the demand, the increased demand in work for DE&I consultants across the board, especially outside of America.
Right. Where all of a sudden everyone’s like, “wait, we have to have these discussions. We don’t know how”. So I think that’s another interesting comparison to make.
Larry Baker: Yeah, that, that’s a great point, Raashi. You touched upon something about the fact that, you know, these conversations were always happening in communities of color.
It’s just that now they’re starting to be more highlighted in the workplace. And with that being the realety of where we are today, I am pretty sure having understanding of cultural implications in regards to, you know, a lot of different things. I’d like to know how do you think some of these cultural differences have made the approach to this conversation unique in global communities that you’re familiar with or that you’re a part of, or are they unique? So Raashi, I’ll ask you to start. What are some of those cultural differences that have made this approach to having this conversation a little bit more difficult or not?
Raashi Sikka: So there are commonaleties, there are similarities, but there are differences. And in doing this work as a DE&I practitioner at a global scale, One of the key principles that I lean on is making it local, right?
In order for these conversations, and after that, actions to be sustainable and impactful, you have to be relevant. Your message needs to resonate. and people need to see and understand how it impacts them in their spheres of influence. So I think that piece around making it local is extremely, extremely important.
And Ale spoke to that, you know, a little bit. The conversation on race takes oftentimes different, it can seem in a pure different, especially at surface level. But when you start thinking about it from the intersection of socioeconomic differences, color of skin and colorism in some parts of the world and other intersections, you’re able to unpack.
How do you meet your audience? How do you make sure that the conversation you’re having is truly resonating with the group that you’re discussing this with? So 100% being able to take a local approach for a topic that is global in nature is extremely important to making sure that this sticks and you’re able to make progress in the long run.
Larry Baker: Yeah, that’s a great point Raashi, because you know, I really like how you clarified that, you know, at least in my experiences. a lot of individuals that are not from America, tend to think that this is just a problem in America. So when you mention that concept of colorism, that has more of a universal appeal or getting into what you’re talking about, relevant local type of topic. So that’s an excellent point to bring to the table. Ale, same question to you. I want you to hop in, tell me about how some of those cultural differences, maybe even in Latin America have made the approach to having this conversation unique.
Alejandro Tobolski: I would say, Raashi made a point that it’s super relevant and very relevant specifically.
In Latin America, which is race based conversations are often mixed with socioeconomic status conversation. In Latin America that’s the case. And in most cases, that’s where the conversation starts right at that level. Then you have to dive deeper into the specific issues, because in many countries, race definitions, it’s not as clear as it is in the US, right?
For different reasons. Now that being said, I think you probably know that Brazil is kind of an exception to that because Brazil is the largest country in the region. More than 200 million people live there. And more than 50% of the population identify themselves as blacks or mixed race.
So in Brazil, the race conversation, it’s a lot more defined than in other countries in the region. But then if you go to my country of origin, Argentina, it’s a lot mixed with socioeconomic status and same in Mexico or even Colombia. So I think it is, as Raashi said, it has to be locally relevant and defined by.
I guess these high level conversations are kind of the same, but they manifest themselves at a deeper level in a different way because of the makeup of each country, the history, the culture, the country, etc.
Larry Baker: So Ale, basically what you’re, if I can paraphrase or if I’m understanding you correctly, it’s finding that point of commonalety so that you can then dig deeper into the much needed conversations that you need to have.
Alejandro Tobolski: Absolutely. That’s exactly Right.
Raashi Sikka: If I may, I think there’s something really important in, in what Ale spoke about right now about history. Yeah. I think the understanding the history of the specific country. Yeah. And the histories that have been right is extremely important in unpacking some of these conversations on race, you know, Larry, you spoke about the perception that this is an American thing and I, I use air quotes as I say that. That’s something, especially in doing this work being based in Europe, it’s something I hear all the time. Yeah. I hear it less now in the last two years. But it is something that you hear quite often.
And when you start understanding what that means, you know, you go back into history, right? Why is it hard in many countries to have this conversation on race because the construct of race doesn’t necessarily appear in the same way as it does in the US. So understanding what that looks like, and then being able to have discussions is something that, you know, I’m sure Ale and, and I, and others who are listening to this call would agree to.
Larry Baker: Raashi. I’m so glad that you said that because part of my fundamental belief in regards to even understanding someone’s situation is that you need to understand that history. And I think that in so many cases, specifically in the United States, that conversation is trying to be exterminated, for lack of a better term, because I think that once people truly get that history understanding, then we can move forward.
Because if you don’t understand the history, you’re bound to repeat it. And we don’t want the same mistakes that happened in the past to continue to resurface as we move to a better future. So I’m a hundred percent in agreement that establishing that history is going to be core to anything that we do to move forward.
So thank you so much for sharing that. Okay. Raashi, I’m gonna put you right back on the spot and talk to me about, because it seems like you have a lot of experience going to a lot of different countries. And I wanna know how are you personally pushing yourself and others out of their comfort zone when speaking on these global race based conversations?
What are some tips?
Raashi Sikka: Well, as DI practitioners, I think one of the things that we often tell folks that we work with is you have to get comfortable being uncomfortable. Right. And you’ve gotta practice what you preach. So that’s, that’s really my journey. Right. And doing this work, approaching it with that lens of curiosity
of, I don’t know everything, and I possibly cannot know everything. Right. So when I start working with a new country, a new culture, one of the first things I need to do is understand the culture, understand the context, understand the political situation in that country or in that region cause that has a tremendous impact in how this work can or cannot be done. What are the outspoken explicit rules, what are the implicit rules. So really approaching this work with that lens of curiosity and being open to learning, challenging yourself, challenging your own norms and beliefs and getting truly, just getting comfortable being uncomfortable is really how I show up and do this work.
When I started doing DE&I work, I was in a regional role as well covering Europe, East Africa for Uber, expanded that to Asia Pacific and then into a global role. And with each of those, you know, new portfolios, I had an opportunity to really learn about these conversations and these topics from the lens of a different culture.
And the thing that helped me throughout was that sense of curiosity and really immersing myself to the greatest extent possible in the culture and asking all the questions that I possibly could to help me frame my understanding.
Larry Baker: Yeah. That’s a great piece of advice, Raashi, the whole curiosity, right?
I think that when you are trying to engage in another culture, another country, coming in with that sense of curiosity allows for, in my opinion, it allows for folks to give you the grace that you need to have when you engage in these conversations. Because you hit it right on the head, you, we don’t know everything, right.
We’re in these roles and we’re asked to do these things. But the realety is we can’t possibly know every single culture. So every day we are pushing ourselves to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. And I absolutely agree with you that that approach of being curious, it allows people to give you the grace to make the mistakes that you’re going to make as you begin this process. So thank you so much for that insight. Ale, your turn. I need to know. Tell me, tell me, tell me Ale. How are you personally pushing yourself and others out of that comfort zone?
Alejandro Tobolski: So, I mean, I was thinking, I was thinking that probably I would say that these conversations are not out of my comfort zone, but I think that a better definition is what Raashi said.
I’ve learned to put myself, I have learned to be comfortable being uncomfortable. I think that’s the right definition. I think for people like us, these conversations are part of our job. Something we do. And we do it because we are incredibly passionate about it. So in that way, you create that comfort in being uncomfortable.
But for me, it’s about one thing is that I always use as a definition of the work we do, which is, progress over perfection. You have to learn all the time. You have to keep moving. You have to, you have to be flexible. You have to be very vulnerable and open to learn and open to tell your story.
And through that, you can push yourself and you can help put others out of their comfort zone. If you open yourself up, if you tell your story, if you are vulnerable and you keep learning that will help you, and as you said, learn a lot. We at J&J, we have taken that approach a lot, which is, education and awareness that helps with these conversations and that helps to create a bit more comfortable conversations even when they sometimes put people out of the comfort zone.
Larry Baker: Yeah. I’ve just picked the phrase that I’m going to steal from you Ale, progress over perfection.
Larry Baker: I mean, that resonates with me so much.
I definitely appreciate you sharing that and I’m going to steal it for my own. So Ale, you did talk about some of the things that J&J is doing. And I, you know, I have the privilege of working with that organization on many projects and assignments. And I absolutely appreciate the commitment and the work that’s being put forth. So I want to get your insights Ale in regards to how can these global organizations continue to work towards having race based conversations within the broad range of all of these different identities that might necessitate us having different approaches to the conversation.
So how do you think as J&J, what’s been their experiences. Yeah.
Alejandro Tobolski: I think, that’s a great question and yeah, we we’ve been very lucky to work with you, with LCW over the years. And I think you’re gonna really, the things that I’m gonna talk about are gonna resonate with you obviously, but you know, at J&J we have our kind of global strategy that guide us all the time. And we have what we call our credo conversations, right, which is our north star. And we have created guides to have courageous conversations. We have unconscious bias training and many other resources that we have. But then you have to, in order to, for them to be of value outside of the US at a local level, you have to make it locally relevant.
Right. So for example, just to give you an example in Brazil, we develop a series of 90 minute webinars on black history in Brazil called Afro Literacy. Right. And that’s how we did it and this was back in 2019. We started in 2019. That’s how we started to learn as an organization. And as we were discussing with Raashi before about the importance of history and how history informs what’s happening today.
Right. And making that connection is always extremely important. We launched mentoring programs exclusively for black employees. We developed additional resources. So we, with other companies, we also discuss best practices, share call to actions with employees. For example, we launched an antiracist commitment in Brazil signed by senior leaders. I’m shared with all employees as a call to action. So LATHRA, which is our employee resource group in Brazil, initiated kind of conversations with different departments at J&J to share best practices and to identify actions that can be taken to create a more diverse and inclusive culture.
Right? So continuously trying to adapt and create new things. Another good example in the way we encourage race based conversation is through something we launched that is called Exploring Our Diversity. It’s basically a culture and immersion series that we launched in 2021.
Kind of, and you know, we work a lot with culture and immersion with you guys. But this is kind of a tweak, which is more like self-guided type of learning platform with it before, blacks in the US, then we move to Asian in the US. Now we are developing Latin and Hispanic in the US.
So again, I mean, depending on the need, we keep constantly evolving and developing new content.
Larry Baker: Ale, you know, that whole concept of J&J sharing best practices with other companies. I think that is so key because I have the absolute pleasure of working with multiple organizations that are facing the exact same challenges.
And I do believe that some organizations feel is that it’s unique to them. And the realety is. All of these organizations are going through the same thing. So the fact that at J&J you are already saying, “hey, I know we can’t be the only ones that are going through this. Let’s see what so and so, and such and such is doing”.
And I like the approach of not just limiting that interaction to individuals that are in your industry. That is so key. That is so critical that there’s nothing wrong with sharing resolutions to problems that you face, because the more that we make it aware that it is possible, it encourages others.
So that’s amazing. And I’ve always appreciated that about J&J right.
Alejandro Tobolski: Just a quick comment there. And I think relevant to what you said. I mean, these issues that we face will never be solved if we are not willing to go beyond our walls. Right. And that’s what we are trying to.
Larry Baker: If I had the little hand clap emoji, you would’ve seen that coming across the screen right now. I agree wholeheartedly with that statement as well. Raashi, I want you to jump in there. Talk to me about how can global organizations continue to work towards having these conversations with all of these different identities.
What are some of the different approaches that they may need to consider when having these conversations?
Raashi Sikka: Yeah it’s a great question. I really appreciate what Ale and you spoke about Larry. This work is not gonna be solved by one organization doing it, right. This is gonna take all of us coming together, sharing, learning, and doing this work together.
And that’s one of the things I love about the space of DE&I practitioners across the world. Is that sense of sharing in community. Right. So podcasts of this nature are just so helpful in joining some of those dots. But to kind of answer your question, you know, one of the things that I’m keen on seeing, especially for organizations who have started this work more recently, so not necessarily J&J and others who’ve been doing this work for much longer for decades now, but for organizations who have recently embarked on this work is how do you move from having conversation to action? And that’s the place that I wanna see commitments. And I wanna see all the beautiful texts and communication that’s gone out in the past two years to truly come into action. And sometimes what I’ve noticed in my work is there is a lot of momentum.
And we all wanna capitaleze on this, this momentum, but you get to this place where you just don’t know what to do and, and it’s inertia. And what I share with folks that I work with, both in my consulting work and in my job at Ubisoft, with leaders is it’s one action. Right?
Do that one action today and you start building upon that and that’s why, you know what Ale spoke about progress over perfection, is something I say a lot at work, and I think it’s something that resonates with us DI Practitioners, because the work is never done, right. So you have to make those step changes before, you know, you see massive success.
So it could be that one conversation that you’ve been putting off to have, because it’s uncomfortable. It could be sponsoring an individual in your organization who you want to have a conversation with but haven’t gotten around to doing that just yet because of something else. It could be listening to that podcast or doing that workshop that, you know, you’re learning and development or your DI team have recommended. It could be reading that article, those things that you know are on your list of things to do, but you don’t get around to doing it because life happens is what I would say. I would like to see organizations and specifically leadership teams and those in positions of power, to start doing and start doing regularly, you have to build up that muscle. So for me, I wanna see more action. I wanna move from talk to action, especially for those organizations that have embarked on this journey more recently.
Larry Baker: Yeah, Raashi. I appreciate that so much and because I think so many folks look at this as this unsolvable issue. Right. And because there’s so many approaches that you can take, it’s almost as if they become paralyzed to do anything. So I love how you break it down and say, take one action. Right. What did you learn today that you can immediately apply to do one thing and build up that momentum so that you can then begin to see those wins repeat themselves?
So, absolutely. I appreciate.
Raashi Sikka: And one thing, if I can add to that at a structural level, especially coming from the context of Europe, right. Where the conversation on race and sometimes the inertia from moving to action is real is because of the regulatory landscape. Right? We don’t have data.
There is the race construct. As Ale mentioned earlier, the definitions are not the same, right? The ability to gather data is not the same. So I think as organizations, especially for folks listening to this conversation outside of the US, or Brazil, or South Africa, or Canada, where, you know, you have data fields and you’re able to gather data more morAlestically how do you move from not having data to having data, to being able to show progress and have, you know, more meaningful and sustained change? Is start collecting anonymous, self identify, self ID data from your teams. So you can start somewhere. You have a benchmark. You have an understanding of what just diversity in your organization, you know, looks like.
Larry Baker: You need to know what your current state is when you’re trying to get to your desired state. Yeah, that’s awesome.
Alejandro Tobolski: So, Larry, if I, if I can build upon what Raashi said, I think it’s extremely important. Maybe kind. From a success factors, what we have identified at J&J, in terms of continue the work, right. One of them is I think I actually mentioned that we have to have the right tone at the top.
That is really key. You have to have your CEO, your senior leaders, and they have to demonstrate their commitment and they have to drive this as an organizational priority. It’s not the DEI department that is gonna be kind of moving the needle. If we don’t do it as an organizational priority, kind of as a business priority.
Right. I think the second thing, I’m building upon the metrics and all that. It is important to have your kind of evidence based, your strategy embedded into system and processes to drive equity. Those are the things that you have to change constantly and make it work, obviously, communications change management, but then you must also measure what you do to drive accountability. And that’s where I think Raashi’s point is critical. And I think we, as practitioners and organizations, we are evolving towards this self ID, mostly outside of the US, which we face still some delays but working on that. Right. And really at the end of the day, I think it is critical to focus on outcomes and not, I mean, you have to, you have to have your short term activities aligned with the long term outcomes. If you do that and you keep working on that, then your teams are gonna start moving, but it’s, again, it’s a marathon, right?
It’s something that it’s gonna take a long time.
Larry Baker: Absolutely. And you know what Raashi, I think I want you to help some of my listeners understand an extremely important point that you brought out. You talked about how you can’t really gather that data in Europe. Can you elaborate on some of the reasons behind that and some of the hurdles that that has created for you in regards to the work that you do?
Raashi Sikka: I think that could be a whole other podcast in itself. Well, I’ll try and sum it up, but it really could be. So, within the context of Europe, because of some of the histories and the political landscape and regulatory barriers that exist, collecting personal identification data is quite difficult for a variety of those reasons that I just stated above.
However, there are some workarounds that are legal, of course, in that if you, as an organization, launch and build a GDPR compliant self-identification process whereby you create the systems and the processes for your team members, your employees to voluntarily share identity information about themselves with the company at their own discretion, you are then able to use that to understand what does the diversity demographics of your company look like and then build from there. And some of the work that Ale spoke about integrating that into your systems and processes is step two from when you have collected some of that information. So it is a fairly complex undertaking. It takes quite a lot of time in most organizations to build and launch due to the privacy GDPR legal requirements.
But it is something that more and more organizations are doing at this moment. And there’s been a surge of this, on this conversation, in countries outside of Europe, in the last two years.
Larry Baker: Good. Awesome. Thank you so much for breaking that down. Raashi so, as we, as we near our time of completion, I wanted to just make space for both of you to just give some final closing thoughts in regards to, you know, these conversations happening globally.
So I’ll give you an opportunity to just kind of sum up some of your main points and some of your main recommendations. So, Raashi, if you could go ahead and start and then Ale, I’ll ask you to close this out.
Raashi Sikka: So I think I’ll start with what gets measured gets done, right. And being able to have an understanding of the status quo, where your organization is today.
Having evidence based tactic strategies is extremely important. Numbers and metrics speak to team members and leaders at large. So what gets measured gets done is maybe my first one. The second is moving from conversation to action. We are and we have been over the last two years or so now, seen a lot of momentum in this space holistically, across social justice and diversity equity inclusion, and specifically on topics of race.
This is truly the moment for us to leverage and to turn that conversation and that momentum into action. So, especially for smaller organizations, especially for organizations that have just started on this journey, my big takeaway would be, get to action. Start making those in incremental changes today.
Don’t wait. Those would be my two main, do you want a third or is two fine?
Larry Baker: Raashi this is your moment. If you got three I’ll take three.
Raashi Sikka: I like three. So I’ll give you a third one. The third is make it local. If you’re doing this work. Sitting in the US or sitting in the UK or sitting wherever in the world you are.
And you’re trying to, you know, do this work at a global scale. You will only be successful when you make it local. That’s when it’s gonna be relevant. And that’s when it’s going to resonate with your stakeholders and your folks on ground.
Larry Baker: I am so glad that you decided to take three. That is amazing. Thank you so much. Ale, your turn closing thoughts, share with us your insight about how do you do this in a global environment.
Alejandro Tobolski: I have kind of a problem because if, if I have to say, how would I do it? I would have to repeat exactly what Raashi said. I mean, it’s exactly what she said. No, but really, I mean, very, very similar ideas, very similar. Way of approaching, right. Evidence based the accountability, the metrics focusing on long term outcomes, making it local.
I think all of that is exactly the way I see it. The way we develop it. I would then say instead of repeating that I would go back to the progress over perfection. Right? Keep moving, help the organization move. The more we can help our teams to kind of embrace the conversations by encouraging engagement and expansion of their knowledge, on this topic that is very, very fast, really, the more we will make diversity, equity, and inclusion, something that belongs to everyone.
And when we make it something that belongs to everyone is when we keep moving forward and keep changing and making it better.
Larry Baker: Ale, I think that first of all, thank you so much for that insight because comforting for me to know, is that the very fact that Raashi and you had the similar foundational points to share with individual that shows that in this field, we have this line of sight, right?
That we have a similar approach. That we are speaking the same type of language to the organizations that we work with. And for me, that’s extremely encouraging. Sometimes we as DE&I practitioners, we need to come together to hear that, “okay. I’m moving in the right direction”. So thank you both for that..
Thank you both for this conversation. I absolutely can sense the passion that you both have in the work that you do. And it’s encouraging to know that you are going forth with this understanding to bring that to the organizations that you work with. So thank you. Thank you. Thank you so much for your participation in this session.
The transparency I absolutely think is going to be something that our listeners are going to appreciate. And enjoy. So again, thank you so much for your participation on today’s session.
Raashi Sikka: Thank you. A pleasure.
Alejandro Tobolski: Yeah, absolutely.
And to all of you that are listening, we wanna know what were your biggest takeaways from this conversation? Please share them with us on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn at language and culture worldwide or LCW.
Culture Moments: Let’s Talk About BIPOC DEI Practitioner Mental Health
Published on: July 28, 2022
Did you know that July is BIPOC Mental Health Awareness Month? BIPOC Mental Health Awareness Month aims to increase visibility of the ways historically disenfranchised, marginalized, or oppressed racial and ethnic groups face unique mental health challenges.
Culture Moments podcast host Larry Baker (he/him) is joined by LCW Consultant Melonya Johnson (she/her) to take this conversation further and examine the specific challenges facing BIPOC DEI practitioners as they discuss inequality, racism, and oppression on a daily basis, while often still enduring it in the workplace.
This Brave Conversation was originally a live stream discussion recorded on July 26th, 2022.
Larry Baker: Hello everyone and welcome to the culture moments podcast. I’m your host, Larry Baker. And I’m thrilled to have you join us for our second season called Brave Conversations with LCW.
In these episodes, you’ll hear from a panel of guests from specific communities offering a range of perspectives on the past two years. We’ll hear about their own experiences as well as their insights on what’s changed and more importantly, what needs to change to move equity forward.
As we all know so much has shifted and changed over the past two years, and for many of us we’re still in recovery from a very difficult 24 months.
Well, hello everyone and welcome to Brave Conversations Live with LCW. I am your host Larry Baker, I use he him pronouns and I am thrilled to actually welcome you to today’s latest edition to our live stream series. Each month, we will be making space for timely and important conversations that we hope will educate, generate discussions, and to help you take actionable items back to your organization and your daily lives. For those of you that may not be familiar with LCW, we are a global DE&I training consulting and translation firm that partners with organizations to develop global mindsets and help you develop your skills and systems to succeed in a culturally diverse world.
July is BIPOC Mental Health Awareness Month. And today we’ll use this opportunity to talk specifically about BIPOC DE&I practitioners’ mental health. We’ll look at why it’s important to talk about BIPOC mental health and what adds to the stress of BIPOC practitioners’ experiences, and how we can actually support practitioners in our own workplaces.
I am super excited today to be joined by my esteemed colleague, Melonya Johnson, who is a consultant here at LCW, and Melonya is here to really share her perspective on what it means to be a BIPOC DE&I practitioner. Melonya, I will go ahead and have you introduce yourself to our audience.
Melonya Johnson: Well, greetings. Hello. I’m really excited to be here today. As Larry said, my name is Melonya Johnson. I’m a consultant with LCW, I hail from Buffalo, New York. And just in terms of my background, my grad degree is in professional leadership. I’m passionate about that. I am a certified professional coach, certified social emotional intelligence coach.
I am certified in the intercultural development inventory, and I’ve had a very varied background. Workforce development, sales, business development, training and development. And so I’m here today as a consultant and really happy and ready to dig into this topic.
Larry Baker: Awesome Melonya. And if I must say so myself, you’re a certified, awesome team member as well, and I’m super excited to have you on the show. But before we jump into our conversation, I just wanna let everyone know that after our discussion, we’re going to be answering all the questions that you have.
So as we dive in please do not be afraid to ask your question in the chat. We have some folks in the background that’s monitoring that and they will get those questions to us soon. So again, we talked about that July is BIPOC Mental Health Awareness Month, according to the American Counseling Association.
And this month simply highlights the unique mental health challenges and the needs of historically disenfranchised, oppress racial and ethnic groups in the United States. So we’re gonna start by asking questions to Melonya about why do we take the time to specifically promote mental healthcare in BIPOC communities?
Because we know that, you know, multicultural communities, they face less access to treatment. We are less likely to receive treatment. And when we do, there’s typically this lower quality of care. We have to deal with higher levels of stigma that are attached to it. And of course racism, bias, homophobia, or discrimination in treatment settings.
So with that being the backdrop, Melonya, first question that I wanna ask you is what challenges do BIPOC DE&I practitioners face within their work that might actually be contributing to burnout, stress, or even mental health conditions like depression?
Melonya Johnson: Well, I think there’s just a number of factors.
I think one is the discussion about mental health is something new. You know, I think since 2020 it has become a front burner conversation. And that’s something that people hadn’t talked about, you know, previously. And then I think when you add on the realities of the BIPOC community I think it becomes an even more nuanced conversation. I think, and we’ll talk a little bit about you know, burnout, you know, the realities of being in this position. I don’t think that managers, leadership, I don’t think that they understand the unique pressures that come with trying to change an organizational culture.
And the resistance that DE&I practitioners face. So I think there’s just a number of things that contribute to the stress level, the potential burnout, and other, you know, mental health challenges that are very specific to this group.
Larry Baker: Okay. So Melonya, if you had to pick one thing that really impacts our effectiveness in driving DE&I within organizations, what do you think is that factor? What do you think is the biggest factor within organizations?
Melonya Johnson: Well, first let me put out a disclaimer. I’m not speaking for all organizations, all companies in all DE&I.
You know, so don’t come after me. But you know, many of us are in positions where DE&I is not a business imperative. Folks say that it is, but the reality that some DE&I practitioners face, right, it does not representative of an organization that has made DE&I front and center in a part of it’s strategic plan and it’s business imperative.
And I think with that comes some challenge.
Larry Baker: Okay. Yeah. You’re going down an interesting path that I’m gonna actually push you to go down a little bit more. Talk to me about what are those challenges, what causes these feelings. And then if you could switch gears and talk about the impact.
So if it’s not viewed as an important business imperative, what causes these feelings? What aren’t you seeing? And then what are the impacts?
Melonya Johnson: Well, you know, I had never, since George Floyd’s murder, I had never seen so many diversity and DE&I job opportunities ever. In the history. And I think many companies knew that they needed to do something so they hired, you know, lots of DE&I practitioners. I think sort of naively thinking that by just doing that alone, it was going to check a box and serve their purposes. But it doesn’t, you know, it’s more involved and again, nuanced, than that.
And I think one of the problems, I had belonged to a group myself. It was a friend of mine, who’s a DE&I practitioner, created a support group because people get burned out. And they’re frustrated and they’re tired and they’re exhausted. DE&I is not new.
It’s been around for a long time, you know, and people do face burnout. And I, when I thought about burnout, I wanted a definition that would serve today. And burnout is nature’s way of telling us we are on a path of most resistant. And when you think about this work, that’s what it feels like. That’s what it is.
We’re pushing against the status quo. We’re breaking down barriers to equality and equity. We’re pushing against policies and unwritten rules. We’re on the grind. We’re pushing, we’re dragging people forward. All of that sounds like resistance, right?
Larry Baker: Yeah. Yeah. All of that is
Melonya Johnson: All of that is tiring. It’s exhausting in and of itself.
And when you are in a corporate or organizational environment that is not truly supporting you then that is, I think when you start to feel the burnout. The lack of engagement or apathy, and then sometimes it leads to even more. We spend more time at work than we do any place.
And if you’re not happy at work that can lead to anxiety and depression. And so you know, if you go into work every day and you’re facing a barrier that’s not moving, that has to have an impact on you. It has to.
Larry Baker: That’s, Melonya, that definition of burnout is so interesting to me because I typically view burnout is something that, you know, I am directly controlling, right. I feel burnout because I’m not getting the proper rest or the proper exercise or setting up proper boundaries. But when you added that twist is that it’s the path of most resistance and how you parallel that to the work that we do in this space of BIPOC DE&I practitioners, it begs me to ask you the question. How do you think leadership in these organizations are contributing to burnout?
Melonya Johnson: Well, again, I told you that my passion is in leadership and I think everything starts at the top. Culture starts with the top of the organization and that’s leadership.
And if you have a DE&I initiative that’s, you know, based on, you know, just being politically correct, it’s going to lack some things that someone needs in order to be effective. And that is power. I met with a client not too long ago, and we were discussing their DE&I initiative.
And they said that, well, you know, we really don’t have the power to really drive this initiative the way we want to. And I thought for a minute then, why? Why are you there and why am I here? Right. So my first instinct was, well, I’ve got to dig a little bit deeper and find out what resources do I have to help them move past that.
Because if you don’t have the power to, you know, help set policies, create accountability, set and control budgets. You know if you’ve got no resources or minimal resources, are you afraid that you’re gonna lose your resources? If you can’t drive the initiative, if you don’t have that power, then you know, that’s an issue with leadership.
Not making, setting up an ecosystem that you can be successful in. You know, that, that’s one thing. You know, nebulous goals, not being able to set and meet goals. I mean, it is a strategy. Years ago, I worked for an organization. I was the head of their business development for, you know, minority business owners.Right. And one day I said to my manager, I said, you know, she’s like, “what do we need to do?” I said, “what you really need to do is work to get me out of this job. You need to embed DE&I practices at every level of this organization and everything that it touches you should be working to put me outta work.
Larry Baker: That’s great.
Melonya Johnson: And let me tell you this. They hired a new person when I left. Right. And then they hired a new person when they left and they hired another person. So what I’m getting at is that that didn’t happen. And so when we’re dealing with lip service, you know, it doesn’t move the needle.
When leaders tell you when you come, and I know there’s people out in the audience who have dealt with this, when you come with suggestions or you come with requests and you’re told to be patient. I’ll tell you again, DE&I is not new, people have been doing this for years.
And so when you say Rome wasn’t built in a day you have to be patient. We’re tired of being patient. Because we really understand the impact that being able to not only make an organization or a company inclusive and safe for everyone, as a BIPOC person in the DE&I space, you also know that the ability to get a job, to get a promotion, right?
You understand that these things impact your life, your families, your communities, the places you’re able to live, the education your children are able to have, the healthcare you get. It impacts everything. So, you know, the pink elephant in the room is that, you know, DE&I initiatives are window dressing, you know, slow growth, no growth.
These are things that practitioners are frustrated with. They’re tired of those, you know, banging their heads against those barriers.
Larry Baker: Yeah. Melonya, that’s such a great point because you know, this is literally a job that we never get to walk away from. I mean, if you think about it, I mean, you, you do your eight hours at the office, but then as soon as you leave the office, everything that you talked about internally begins to impact you in your external life.
So it is such a unique dynamic that I’m not just preaching this to the organization. This is literally what I walk into every single day. And if you are dealing with, again, back to that burnout piece, if I’m in the midst of the most resistance, understand that that just doesn’t stop when I walk out of the door.
And before I ask you the next question, because again, I know your focus is on leadership development. I really want you to talk to the leaders that we have on the call about what do you think they can do to be more supportive. I also want to ask the audience to please, please, please make sure that you are putting your questions in the chat.
We really, really want to hear from you. Please tap into Melonya’s experience so that we can get your questions answered. So Melonya, back to the topic at hand. You were talking about how leaders contribute to burnout. Talk to me about how do these leaders support their DE&I practitioners, or how can they support their colleagues to have these more supportive systems in your opinion.
Melonya Johnson: Well, you know what, anyone who knows me knows that I’m a pretty direct person and I can be fearless. I do not mind, you know, challenging the status quo. And I think one of the things that managers and leadership should understand about that DE&I practitioner that’s within your company or your team, is that their job is to change the hearts and minds of others.
As BIPOC people we’ve been trying to change the hearts and minds of people for a long time. And, again, you have to really be honest with your intent. Are you really serious about creating a diverse, inclusive, and equitable work environment for folks? I think that’s the first step and I think that leadership has to put some teeth, real teeth and effort behind their DE&I initiative. Walk the walk, hold managers accountable for change.
Tie DE&I goals to compensation. Give your DE&I practitioners the resources that they need and the resources that they need to affect change. And those are just a few of the things. And again, I’m not speaking for everyone. There’s some people out there that says, you know, we have all of these things.
And even if you do have all of these things, it can still be tiring work, and it still can be exhausting because you step out of a workplace that you’re fighting and you’re grinding and you’re moving and you’re facing that resistance. And then you turn on the TV and you see George Floyd.
Where you see Asian Americans being killed because of political rhetoric. Or you see Latinx families separated at the border, children taken away from their families. Muslim people profiled. You, you walk out into this world where there is none of the things that we need for our best mental health.
You know, I’ve said once, you know, is being a person of color, did that just increase the challenges and the opportunities for mental health stress? It’s not just in the workplace. Managers need to check in, get a temperature, see, you know, how are you doing?
How are you feeling? Are you excited? Are you exhilarated about work? Are you frustrated? What is it? What can I do? And then understand also Larry, that everybody’s not different. Many BIPOC people are taught you gotta be strong. You gotta be strong. And sometimes that show of strength is to not let other people and even sometimes yourself know when you’re struggling.
Larry Baker: Yeah. That’s a great point. That’s a great point. And I really like how you were talking about that the work that we do is really about changing that heart, right? Making, putting in the work in the heart, which I’ve always encouraged individuals when they ask, well, Larry, what, what do we do? What can we do?
How do we make sure that this message is permeating through an organization and absolutely agree with you that it’s the top down approach, but I also challenge them to describe what is your, why. Like, why is this important to you? And if you do that from the very top and it starts to cascade down, it isn’t a business issue, right? This is your heart issue. Why is this important to you? Because we know that the only way that this change is going to come is when it becomes personal. So I absolutely love the fact that you talked about that this has to be a message that just resonates with your why. And I don’t even have to ask you to attend an event you will beat me to the event. Because your why is so strong that you don’t need additional coaxing or encouragement to be there because you are so in touch with your why, which means you’re in touch with your heart. That’s when we start to see these changes happen. So I absolutely appreciate those comments.
So you touched upon a point about our culture, specifically the black culture, how, you know, we were taught to be strong. We’re taught to be, you know, bear it and we probably won’t seek out that type of attention that we probably do. But I do want you to talk about what are some steps that as a BIPOC DE&I practitioner we can take to prioritize our own mental health?
What advice do you have?
Melonya Johnson: I think that, you know, we need to tune into ourselves. You know, so much of our focus is on carrying, you know, a whole society forward. And we’re always looking outside of our ourselves. So I think it’s important. You know, I think in the last couple of years, a couple of things have become very clear.
Mental health is real and self care is real. And so I think that we need to be kind to ourselves and listen to ourselves and tune in to really what is important. Are we living our values? You know, are we working in our values? And, you know, and when you, and should you find that you’re not doing as well as you used to be or that you find that you’re more anxious or you’re, you know, you’re dealing with depression.
I just encourage you not to sweep it under the rug, but to vow to live your best life. Meaning get whatever help that you need to get. And if you get with a counselor or somebody and they don’t resonate with you, find a new one. There’s plenty out there.
And I think also in terms of some of the things that our management can do is our programs like EAP and all, all those other resources make certain that they are conscientious of their workforce and the differences in their workforce, so that we have access to counselors and people from the BIPOC community. So that it makes folks easier to relate and more at ease. I think you have to set, as a DE&I practitioner, I think you have to set your goal to find inner peace. If that’s what’s not in your life that you’ve got to make it a priority. And I think that one of the things that we have to do and I’m going to name it after this live stream, is we have to conduct brave conversations. We cannot be, there’s not a DE&I person on the planet that doesn’t tell management and allies and colleagues and everyone else that you’re going to have to learn to conduct difficult conversations.
Well, sometimes those difficult conversations are; “I’m not getting what I need in order to be successful, and that is impacting me in a very negative way.” That that’s such a good, a great conversation to have.
Larry Baker: And even if it’s, you’re having it with yourself, right.
Yeah. You definitely need to be honest with yourself. And you know, for me personally, I had that realization not that long ago. Because you know, I feel like I have a pretty big responsibility to our organization to deliver the facilitated sessions to our clients. And there was a period where I was just starting, like you said, just not feeling right.
And I talked to my wife about it and she hit me upside the head with a ton of bricks. She simply said, “Hey, have you taken a vacation this year?” And it never even dawned on me simply because of the responsibility that I feel. I have this banner to carry into these organizations to represent folks that may not ever get an opportunity to speak to the level of people that we do.
And there’s this part of me that felt like I would let them down. And she just simply said, have you taken a vacation? And it was a simple thing like that, that just had me have a paradigm shift. And I said, you know what? I haven’t. So I actually did set up some time to take a vacation and it really doesn’t take much, But it’s, like you said, be in tuned with yourself. Have some brave conversations with yourself. And don’t be afraid to say, “Hey, am I okay?”
And you know what? It’s okay if the answer is no, it really is. And I truly felt like I had to carry this load to be in front of these clients to champion the underrepresented individuals in whatever organization it was. And I felt like I would let them down. But in reality, it was burning me out because I’m going through the path of most resistance.
So I absolutely agree with you that that is the key. We have to be able to hear from ourselves. So Melonya, if it’s okay with you, I’m gonna see if we have any questions from the audience that we can respond to. And let’s see if we have anything in the background.
Okay, Joseph, thank you so much. You are.
It’s our pleasure. Because again, we want individuals to be able to take something from this to apply to their lives because I think that it’s so crucial that we recognize that. So I believe, let’s see, Melonya, do we have a video that you wanted to share? We do. Okay. So let’s, let’s cue the video and see if we get some questions to flow in after that.
So if we can, let’s go ahead and cue the video.
Video: We live in a world that prioritizes productivity above all else. I’m so grateful. I’ve learned through the years, that the only way to be my best self for others is to make preserving my own mental health, the priority. Some ways I’ve learned to do that is taking my alone time.
There’s nothing wrong with needing your own space sometimes not to be mom or babe or whoever else the world calls you, but to just be you when I. Overwhelmed. I go into my hiding place and I meditate, pray journal, or even fall asleep. If that’s what my body and mind need in that moment, sometimes it’s about getting some exercise.
So I go for a brisk walk, a quick run, or I hit the gym and let’s face it with the demands of life. It can be easy to get sucked into just being serious all the time. Running a business or leading a team, a family. So I found that it’s important to build in some play time. For me, that looks like a game night or taking a few minutes to watch a random comedy special on Netflix, whatever you choose, just never forget that choosing you is never a waste of time.
It is the most productive thing you can do, and you have to choose something to make you and your mental health, the priority. Because nobody else can and nobody else will.
Larry Baker: Super powerful. I mean, I think that, you know, we tend to forget that old saying that you have to take time to sharpen your axe right. And however that looks for you may look different for me. But we have to consider that’s just as important as the deliverables that we push out. And one of the things that I honestly feel like that may start to contribute to that even more is this virtual work environment.
Because if I’m honest with myself, I find myself making it harder to detach from work. Simply because my office is right in the basement and I’ve set it up where I have like a little area where I can sit down and relax afterwards. But I continue to find myself going back to the desk and checking, see if that email has come or making sure that I’ve got this thing prepared for the next day.
And there really isn’t that clean delineation from work is over right. Now you’re with family. Now I’m fortunate enough to have a spouse and kids that will pull me away from that. But the reality is that draw is always there because it’s just so convenient. And I just wanna make sure that I get this done and I get this ready.
So I absolutely appreciate a lot of the resources that they talked about in that video because again, it all relates back. That self-help and that self-awareness Melonya your thoughts on that?
Melonya Johnson: You know, Larry, I know the work that you do. You’re a fantastic facilitator and many of us, when you stop to think of the landscape that we’re in now, you know, that education does not represent the BIPOC history in this country, right? And so sometimes it is the work of the DE&I practitioner to educate their workforce. Right. And we don’t really realize the trauma that we face every time we retell these stories. You know, the Asian Americans in World War II, the internment, you know. And I mentioned some, you know, we talk about, you know, slavery, and civil rights, and then if that’s all taking place in a backdrop that’s still happening today.
So we’re talking about trauma of the past, but still living the trauma. And these things they stay with us. You don’t turn ’em off. Because your heart and your mind, I don’t know a DE&I practitioner whose heart and mind and soul isn’t into the work that they do. Right?
And so you’re not turning it off. You’re trying to figure out a way to get to people so that they can see that they can feel and they can change. And so, but we, I don’t think we pay attention to sometimes the trauma that we keep reliving. And I just encourage people to pay attention to themselves.
Notice when your habits have changed notice when you’re not, you know with COVID and everything, you know, people have not always interacted, you know, have been so separate, but, you know, are you still engaging with people? Are you still doing things that you enjoy? Are you still keeping your surroundings?
Are you eating well? I saw somewhere 50% of depression is sort of based on our diets. Has your diet changed? Just pay attention to yourself and give some love and attention to yourself.
Larry Baker: So Melonya, we did have someone that posed a very interesting question. And I’m gonna ask we both provide our take on the response.
So the question is simply how do we bring up to someone that we think they might need some self care help without pry? So from my perspective, I honestly would appreciate it. Right. I would appreciate it. If someone said something in a way that kind of led to the fact that they care about me, they care about my wellbeing.
They care that I’m at my best. And they’ve noticed some things because the reality is we carry this burden of wanting to make sure we’re not letting anyone down. And we tend not to be aware of when we may not be at a hundred percent, because again, it goes back to that whole mindset of pushing through and pushing forward.
So for me, I would absolutely appreciate it. If someone came from the approach of, “Hey, I really care about you as a person, Larry Baker, and not as my coworker. Have you considered taking some time?” To me, I don’t think that would be prying simply because you’ve prefaced it with your care for my wellbeing.
And I think that’s the key. Anytime you do something with those intentions of authenticity and you really care, I think that would be a good way for it not to seem like it would be prying. What are your thoughts on that?
Melonya Johnson: Me? You know, again, I go back to uncomfortable conversations, you know, life is filled with them.
And I think the one thing we can do is let ourselves off the hook. We don’t have to be perfect, but what we can do is say, you know what, “Larry, I noticed that lately you’ve been doing X, Y, and Z, you know? And I just wanted to check in to see how are things going?” The coaching may ask questions.
How are things, how are things going? I noticed when this happened you had that reaction, you know, can you share a little bit about what, you know. And and here’s the thing, I’m not trying to pry. But I would feel remiss if I didn’t check in on you, especially what’s going on these days. So, you know, if you’re offended, I’m sorry, but I care about you and just, you know, and if you fumble, if you fall get up and keep crying, I don’t have any issue with pride.
I will try. Thank you very much.
Larry Baker: And you know, that’s a key piece. I mean, I really feel, and I, and I’m probably biased because at our organization, we’re still small enough to have that family sort of feel to it. So when someone comes to me with that approach of, “Hey, look, this is bigger than what we do. This is something that I encourage you to do.” As a matter of fact, when I brought up the fact that I hadn’t taken a vacation to the manager that I was talking to, literally the next day I saw, “Hey, make sure you get that vacation in”, right. It wasn’t about the work. It wasn’t about anything. Their concern was, “Hey, make sure you get that vacation in.”
We, we’re not giving out badges for the most PTO accumulated at the end of the year. That’s not how we work here. And, and just that little bit of recognition made me feel at ease to say, “yeah, this is a good idea.” Right? I will always give people grace if they give me effort. Right. If you’re giving me effort, if you are doing something that you truly feel like the impact that you want to have is for my benefit, I’m gonna give you grace.
I can’t argue with somebody that says, “Hey, I’m looking out for your best interest.” Even if it’s feedback that I’m not too happy with. If you shape it, that it’s in my best interest I’m gonna give you that grace. And I do believe we have another question. So if we could get that question from Anthony Holland.
What are meaningful measures that management can use to bring visibility and awareness to the mental health impact of an organization’s DE&I initiatives. Woo Anthony. Great question, Melonya. I’m gonna let you start and I can give my thoughts.
Melonya Johnson: Is it possible to see that question again?
So, you know what I think we, we have to start to bring things outside of the shadows. I think that it has to be something that people, you know, discuss and, and it could be something as simple as if you have a SharePoint page or you know, a page where you fill out your time cards, or if you have an internet page, you know, just to remind people of the resources. Remind them this is, you know, what month, you know, we’re celebrating and to make certain that folks know what resources are out there and to just bring it to the, forefront.
You know, bring it to the managers. You know what, again, and I’ll use George Floyd as an example, but there’s been examples since then where things have happened out in society and managers didn’t know how to talk about it. Right? But you know, there’s nothing wrong with going to folks and saying, look, I know that there is something happening in your community that’s devastating, you know? Please know that I’m a resource for you and this organization is a resource for you. And if there’s anything that we can do, we have EAP or whatever resources you have, please utilize them. And let me know, because I want to be a partner with you. And speaking of resources, to the person that asks, you know, what about if it’s one of my colleagues, we do have a list of resources for the participants of today’s programs that we’re gonna share with you.
But, but you know, it also may be, you know what, you seem to be a private person. So I’m just gonna slip you, I’m just gonna give you a sheet that has some local resources that you might want. You know, use them if you want to. And feel free to come, you know, to meet and have a conversation.
So I wanted to say that to that person, but I just think that I think that our employers, organizations just have to be more mindful of the stress that people are under these days. I live in Buffalo. Mass shooting. Racially motivated. Devastating to our community, right?
So those are things that you can’t ignore. I laughingly said that, you know, when it happened on a Saturday, I thought I was okay. That Monday I started a three day crying tour. I was devastated. And, you know, and I just think that it’s important for, when we are talking about diversity, equity and inclusion, what we’re talking about is a deeper level of humanity.
I’m going to look out. Yes. There’s a business reason for diversity equity and inclusion. There’s a whole bunch of statistics that show, if you have an inclusive, diverse work environment, a whole bunch of things go up. Revenue, productivity, solutions are better. We have all of that, but we’re gonna talk about the human level today.
Cause when you’re talking about mental health, you’re talking about the human. And you have to connect with people.
Larry Baker: Yeah. And that’s so good because as managers, you know, there’s this shift. And that shift is really focusing in, on your emotional intelligence, right? Because that analytical intelligence, absolutely that is a key component of management. But the shift is really coming into that emotional intelligence quotient that determines how effective you’re going to be as a manager. And as a manager, one of your driving motivations should really be about how am I making people feel when they work with me? So to go back to the question to highlight.
As a manager of the DE&I initiatives promoted, walk the walk, maybe even let folks know, “Hey, I’m attending X, Y, Z event. Meet me there.” And, and they’ll say, “wait, hold on for a second. This executive is going to this? Well, I’ve gotta go and check this out.” So the more that they’re a part of it, the more that they’re engaged, it’s going to create that culture where other people feel like it’s okay.
People could care less about what you say, they’re gonna follow what you do. And those are the types of things that begin to create that environment of “well, if they think it’s important to set the time aside in their schedule to attend this, then I should be able to do that too.” So I don’t know if we have another question in the background, let me know if so, just go ahead and post that up.
Okay. I’m getting a report that says we do not have any more questions. We do have those resources. That Melonya mentioned that we are going to be sending out to all of the individuals that register, but Melonya, before we go, I wanna give you an opportunity to share some of your final thoughts on this extremely important topic on BIPOC mental health for DE&I practitioners
Melonya Johnson: I hope that first and foremost, I hope that the two folks that ask questions, I hope that our responses answer their questions. And if they’re not, I believe there is a way that they can you know, do a follow up, let us know.
Yeah, let us let us know because we’re really here for you. Just in closing I encourage you, all of us, to really take care of ourselves. One of, I know someone who was a phenomenal DE&I a practitioner who left the industry and did something else, because it became burned out and tired.
And the work is so important that we need to continue to champion it, but not at our own peril. Take care of yourself, conduct the brave conversations, be fearless and challenging the status quo and determine whether or not, you know, your values are being represented in your daily life and in the work that you do.
And if not, then there are considerations that you have to take into account.
Larry Baker: Absolutely, absolutely. Well, Melonya, I cannot thank you enough for sharing your insight on this extremely important topic. And this has been an incredible session today, such a great conversation, but the reality is it doesn’t stop here.
We’ve touched upon this a few times. We are super excited to offer to all of our listeners a tool to bring this learning back to your own workplaces. We have some different resources that we can make sure that we get to you so you can share. And if you want a partner in having these conversations or some other trainings, they focus on the black experience in the United States, please let us know. You can contact LCW at languageandculture.com. One more time. Languageandculture.com. Once again, Melonya, like I said, you are a certified awesome teammate, and I’m so happy that you joined me for this conversation today, and this has been Brave Conversations with LCW Live. Thank you so much for your participation.
And to all of you that are listening, we wanna know what were your biggest takeaways from this conversation? Please share them with us on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn at language and culture worldwide or LCW.
Culture Moments: De-weaponizing Critical Race Theory
Published on: July 13, 2022
Across the country, “Critical Race Theory” has been weaponized as a justification for limiting identity-based conversations in schools and workplaces. To date, at least seven states have passed legislation limiting these types of conversations, while citing or banning Critical Race Theory in the process and at least seventeen more states have similar legislation in the works, proving this conversation is not going away.
In this Brave Conversation, Culture Moments podcast host Larry Baker is joined by Natasha Aruliah, JEDdi Consultant, Facilitator and Coach at The Inner Activist, and Tahitia Timmons, Senior Consultant at LCW, as they break down the true meaning of Critical Race Theory and de-weaponize it in the process.
Show Notes & Highlights
4:14: Tahitia breaks down what Critical Race Theory (CRT) really is
29:16: Natasha begins to explain how white fragility
24:03: Tahitia analyzes Florida’s “Stop Woke Act” and how Critical Race Theory is (and isn’t) the real target
27:50: Larry shares his perspective on what the targets of laws like Florida’s “Stop Woke Act” truly are
40:30: Tahitia shares a story about her son to illustrate how “colorblindness” does not exist
43:27: Natasha recalls a story about a school she worked with and how they supported the perpetrator of racism more than the targets of that same racism
45:36: Tahitia’s closing advice on the importance of having open dialogues
47:00: Natasha’s closing advice on multiple truths and valuing multiple truths
Larry Baker: Hello everyone and welcome to the culture moments podcast. I’m your host, Larry Baker. And I’m thrilled to have you join us for our second season called Brave Conversations with LCW.
In these episodes, you’ll hear from a panel of guests from specific communities offering a range of perspectives on the past two years. We’ll hear about their own experiences as well as their insights on what’s changed and more importantly, what needs to change to move equity forward.
As we all know so much has shifted and changed over the past two years, and for many of us we’re still in recovery from a very difficult 24 months.
So welcome. Today, we will be talking about a concept that you’ve probably seen in the headlines, critical race theory. Across the country, critical race theory has been weaponized as a justification for limiting identity based conversations in schools and in workplaces. To date, at least seven states have passed legislation limiting these types of conversation while citing or banning critical ace theory in the process. And at least 17 more states have similar legislation in the works.
This is a conversation that is not going away. So together let’s de-weaponize critical race theory by talking about what it actually is, what it isn’t, and what it all means for your own workplaces. So today I’m joined by Natasha Aruliah, who is a Consultant, Facilitator, Speaker, coach, and Founding Faculty at The Inner Activist and Tahitia Timmons, who is our very own Senior Consultant at LCW. Welcome to both of you.
And we are going to kick off this session by having each of you introduce yourself to us and tell me who you are and what you do. And Natasha, I am going to ask that you kick us off.
Natasha Aruliah: Thanks, Larry. It’s uh, lovely to be here with you both. So, uh, my name is Natasha Aruliah as you shared.
And I live currently on the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations, otherwise known by its colonial name as Vancouver, Canada. Um, and I share that because. um, if we’re gonna talk about critical race theory, it’s also linked to colonization and I’ll share more as we, as we chat. I’m sure.
But that link is really important. So placing myself and my location in the context of that is really important. I’m a racialized settler here. I’m, um, an immigrant from the UK, which is where I was born. But. Um, um, of Sri Lankan Tamil descent, and that’s really important to me. And that’s part of the reason that decolonizing is so much part of my work.
Um, and, uh, I consider myself a Jedi in terms of consulting. And that is a justice equity decolonizing, and then diversity and inclusion consultant. And if we’re focusing on justice equity and decolonizing, the diversity and inclusion is a natural outcome of that. So I’m not a D&I person. I’m a justice equity and de-decolonizing person first and foremost.
Larry Baker: Awesome. Thank you so much for that Natasha
Tahitia Timmons: Tahitia. Thank you, Natasha. My name is Tahitia and as Larry mentioned, I am a senior consultant here at LCW. My background is rooted mainly in my experiences with health equity work and content creation for various organizations, mainly in the healthcare sphere.
So if you understand concepts of health equity, um, when we talk about CRT, which was what we’re discussing today, health equity really sits in that equity space and that, you know, in order to make change, we have to change some systems. My interest and engagement in this stems from that, because you can’t talk about health equity on an individual basis.
You talk about it in a system basis. So I bring to this, my experience as a nurse educator, as a certified diversity professional. And that’s what informs my thoughts on this. And then from a personal, uh, perspective, I am a Queer Black neuro diverse woman sitting as a single parent. So the things that, you know, sort of impress my personal life and impact my personal life tend to not be from an individual perspective, but from systems.
Larry Baker: That’s awesome. Thank you so much for that Tahitia. And I thank you both again for joining me in this extremely important conversation. And, and I wanna just start off with a very basic setting the stage question, and I’m gonna ask that, um, Tahitia, you kick us off with responding to this because. I want us to begin talking about what is critical race theory and what are some of the biggest misconceptions about it?
Because I personally believe that this is a manufactured pandemic. It’s a manufactured panic. I mean, it’s just, if you talk to people, the majority of people don’t even know what CRT is all about. It, it seems that they’re just following along with some false narrative. So Tahitia, I want you to talk to me about what is it and what are some of the most common misconceptions?
Tahitia Timmons: Thank you, Larry. So critical race theory. If we’re talking real critical race theory, it is, it is a concept that came out of legal academia back in the seventies. And so it, it really was about legal scholars, examining racism and the role it plays in our laws, our policies, our systems impact people.
So that’s really what critical race theory is. And I find it fascinating that you have this concept coming out of the seventies, eighties, you know, you have refinement over time, but now all of a sudden we have this boom critical race theory. We don’t wanna talk critical race theory to employees, or we don’t wanna talk about it to students, but we’ve been talking in legal academia about critical race theory.
I do not believe that critical race theory is what’s being applied in school systems nor by employers, nor in DEI programs, I think ideas and concepts and, and the idea of analyzing how we live in community societies and structures that comes from there, but the actual tenants and there’s five key tenants, uh, to critical race theory.
I do not believe that that is necessarily being expressed in those areas. And so maybe so the five tenants and I’m just gonna run through them are that race is a social construct that there is. There is not a biological, you know, difference per se, between our races, that this is something that we do socially.
So if you’re thinking that race is a social construct, then it’s a system construct, right? Because I don’t make social constructs as an individual. They’re made for me by society. And that if race is a social construct and we examine it through that lens, then racism is a normal feature that this is what comes out of living and acting and exists.
In systems and social institutions and that it’s that systemic racism that creates inequalities. And for me, like since I’m approaching it from a health equity perspective, it’s those, um, disparities that we see in the system. And so people working in healthcare have heard about, well, there’s. Inequitable distribution of healthcare and there’s disparities in healthcare.
We’re not afraid to talk about that as a social system, but then when we talk about other things, we get nervous because we’re afraid to say this is a system, but I don’t believe in DEI we’re really saying, okay, it’s a normal feature. And that it exists in systems and institutions in the ways that it is talked about in the five tens.
And then thirdly, uh, CRT rejects that racism is a few bad apples. And we hear this concept that when bad things happen, it’s not the group. It is the bad apples, right. That it’s a few people who did something wrong, or it. We’ve moved past that. And that was that piece. Um, I don’t believe that. We necessarily say that, you know, racism is a few bad apples or, or that we’re not rejecting that theory, but I think we’re looking at it a little bit deeper, uh, when it comes to CRT, because there really like that is one of the tenants of CRT.
And I don’t believe that all schools, all employers are saying, you know, they’re rejecting that because if you think about different DEI programs, Depending on where you are in your journey, you may not be talking about that in that manner. So I would like to say that I really believe the five tenants are not necessarily included in when, um, we talk about CRT in schools and education.
And then I would like to also add that part of that is the concept of merit. Right? So we hear a lot about meritocracy. And, and how people should be judged on merit alone in certain things. And that CRT, yes, it rejects meritocracy. But if you think about merit in a social system, as a way to evaluate and judge people, certain people will have different advantages.
And that is why CRT looks to reject meritocracy. It’s an unequal system, right? So if you think of it from a system approach, you can’t have merit without correcting the system. You can’t judge people from a merit perspective until you write it that, and I. And, and I’m not gonna repeat this over and over again, but I don’t think that throughout, um, all examples of DEI training or talks about identity, we’re saying, hey, merit doesn’t have a place.
Um, and then there’s this concept and this gets people rejecting the concept of color blindness, and let’s be realistic, when people of color or I’ll even say women… I’ll pull this into there. You cannot see me without seeing all of me, my, my natural hair, my darker skin, my Black skin for people to say, I don’t see color.
This color blindness and the rejection of that. When you analyze law and policy, it, it makes sense that they’re gonna reach out this because we know there were laws written specifically regarding color. So you can’t say that there is no that. Laws and policies are written without that view of color blindness.
Yeah. And then the final thing, and I just wanna say the rejection pieces, those three things are, are kind of in, in one tenant. And then the final thing with this, with what is CRT is. If you look at history and laws and policy, they are not written by marginalized groups. They are written by the majority or the winner, right?
The, the loser doesn’t write the policy or, or lead the discussion. It is the winners and the majority that have created our laws. So. The thought in CRT is that we need to think about when, when we look at scholarship, including those stories from all of our cultures and experiences, so that we can see that broad and beautiful experience that many different people have had versus just the experiences of the majority and having that shape and influence our laws and policies.
Larry Baker: So Natasha, I’m definitely gonna get you in on this question as well, but I wanna quickly summarize what I’m hearing for you Tahitia.
So CRT is a graduate level course… So if you are not pursuing a law degree, You are not being taught CRT. I just need to make that perfectly clear so that we can demystify all of the noise that’s surrounding this.
So it is a graduate level law course. If you are not pursuing a law degree, you are not being taught CRT. And even if there are some aspects to it in the schools, it definitely isn’t about teaching that races are superior to others or to hate America. Could that be a fair assumption in regards to what CRT is and what it isn’t?
Tahitia Timmons: Yes, 110%… Kimberly Crenshaw, who, who termed that phrase CRT, uh, her thought behind CRT was that we were gonna critically examine us laws. Let me be clear us laws and the impact they had on racism. In this country on the lives of non-white people. Absolutely. So that’s what it, it is, it is the, it is looking at laws and I doubt that a third grader somewhere is sitting down and saying, let me look at the, the interpretation of law back in that the Supreme court did on this let piece of legislation.
Absolutely. If so that third grader is very smart.
Larry Baker: absolutely. Natasha. I want you to jump in this, tell me your interpretation of critical race theory and some of the biggest misconceptions about it.
Natasha Aruliah: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s interesting. So absolutely. I’m not an expert on this, so let me be really clear. Um, but for me it is an it’s, it’s an academic theory.
It comes out of academia and as Tahitia said, specifically out of, of legal scholarship. And so, yeah, when we are talking about it in terms of in workplaces, that is not what’s going on in workplaces. I mean, I think Tahitia laid that out really clearly, but I do think that there are, you know, as Kimberly Crenshaw and other scholars, um, studied examining legal systems.
Other systems started to pay attention because of course, if, if we’re talking about racism being systemic, it’s not just one system, it’s all the systems, health systems, education systems, political systems, and government systems, uh, financial and monetary systems. Right. It’s all there. And so, um, what’s happened and I.
You know, the way I kind of see it is that it has infused into a lot of people’s thinkings, a lot of, um, scholarship, um, and also into then application, which is what kind of, where I’m at with it. Um, and I really wanna come back to when I describe myself as not being a D&I person, I think D&I is, um, often very soft in workplaces.
Mm. And for me, I wanna see transformative change. I want to see injustice and inequity change in workplaces. And so for me, I have to bring in a critical analysis and, you know, The interesting thing about CRT whether it’s the actual CRT the legal scholarship, or it’s the sort of academic, um, or the, or the, um, sort of belief in those tenants.
That races, a social construct, that it’s systems that are at play, that it rejects this notion of a few bad apples that it rejects meritocracy it, you know, it really pushes back on colorblindness. Right? And it recognizes who wields power let’s have a, you know, the conversation is about power and who held power, who held it.
To create the systems and who continues to hold it because the systems then benefit and privilege and maintain power. Right? If you think about CRT as having opening up those conversations about power, how is it any different than feminist theory or queer theory or any right. And, and so some of the backlash and the misconceptions that, oh, it’s, it’s causing more polarization and it’s vilifying white people and stuff.
You know that, I mean, that was there when feminist theory was first coming out too, and men were really threatened and felt that, but would men say that now, can they not acknowledge that the systems and structures were built by men that benefited men and women have, have been, you know, people who identify as women, CIS women, um, uh, and transgender folk have been.
Penalized and, and, and it’s unequal and, and, um, and therefore, um, oppressive to them. Right? Yeah. And so for me, that is critical race theory allows for those conversations to get past this, this, um, you know, this, I’m not racist piece that, you know…
Personalizing it and being so, uh, fronted by being attacked, as being racist and recognizing racism is baked into the systems. Yeah. It’s baked into our organizations. It’s baked into every single thing that we do. And if we don’t examine it and deconstruct it, we can’t address it.
Larry Baker: Yeah. That Natasha, that’s such a great point.
And I really want to tell or tag into something that you said about how you do not consider yourself a DEI practitioner, because you said that that’s too soft. And I am of that mindset as well that we do not push the button as much as we probably should. So I’d like you to respond to this question.
How do you insert that critical race theory, if you will, within the context of the workplace in some of the things that you do? Yeah. Give, share with us how you do that.
Natasha Aruliah: Yeah, this is, this is where the challenge comes, right? This is where the rubber hits the road. Yeah. Um, I mean, really, it’s hard for organizations, um, to do some of this really deeper work because, um, you know, D&I is often about, um, You know, sort of getting the numbers in, making it look, it can be D&I done badly is performative and it’s tokenizing.
And so, um, for me, really bringing in the justice and equity piece, bringing in the critical, uh, you know, critical race theory and other critical theories is about really examining how, if they keep, if organizations keep playing the game and. Keep maintaining their systems and structures. They’re gonna keep, um, keep it in a unequal and inequitable for, um, marginalized spoken.
So in terms of race, in particular, it’s thinking about, you know, cuz with D&I, what you see is they’ll bring, you know, organizations will make an effort and they’ll bring in lots of people of color, um, lots of black and indigenous and people of color, but where are they in the organization? They’re not usually at the top.
Right. They’re at the bottom. Um, what is the experience like the revolving door? You know, we talk about glass ceilings. What about revolving doors? People come in and they leave, they come in and they leave because they, they’re not healthy work environments. Yeah. And so looking at patterns. Um, and looking at data very critically, um, disaggregating data, um, all of those kinds of things are the ways in which we start to really unpack the systemic practices and the structures in organizations.
Um, and start to have conversations about that and looking at, um, the work, you know, things like recruitment. I mean, a lot of organizations say we wanna attract, you know, BIPOC folk and they have the, just the disclaimer, but there’s nothing in the descriptions of the organization or the job that bakes in the equity is part of the job.
How are they, how is that, you know, how are they contributing to and committing to as an organization, as individuals in the organization? Um, anti-racism equity, um, and, and justice, right?
Larry Baker: Yeah, that, that, that’s a, that’s great insight, Natasha. And, and I’m gonna shift gears a little bit because I wanna ask Tahitia a question…
So Tahitia, I want you to dig into this one, because what I’m seeing is that far too often critical race theory has become the weapon that’s used to attack race based conversations in schools, or in workplaces. We have seen numerous new laws that have shown this to be true. Like the, uh, Florida’s bill known as the “Stop Woke Act.”
Let me ask you this Tahitia. Why has critical race theory become the target for these attacks and what, in your opinion? What do you think the goal of these attacks are?
Tahitia Timmons: So my thoughts on this are that critical race theory is not really what they’re attacking because some of the language in the Florida Stop Woke Act does not have anything to do with critical race theory.
So when you talk about, anti-racism like not saying things like you, you’re gonna say that systems are oppressive, that you’re not gonna talk about privilege, that you’re not gonna make people feel bad. I would. Them to examine the actual documents around critical race theory and find that in there where it says we are going, this is what this is about.
And so, especially with the Florida woke act, there’s a lot of things in there. Like they’re attempting to. Build this bucket around critical race theory that has nothing to do with critical race theory, but it’s being used as this. Let’s pull up this concept. Yeah. As you know, this is bad and we don’t want to polarize people and critical race theory is all about.
Pointing out that, you know, we do view people differently and, and systems are oppressive, but that’s not true. And they don’t understand what critical race theory is. But if I can point to something and say, well, there’s the bad guy then. I’m gonna latch on to C RT as the motivator and the rationale behind why people want to have discussions around race and say that we can’t do this at work, or we can’t do this at school, but similar to Florida, you know, don’t say gay.
Right. And sorry, I had to laugh cuz it’s just so ridiculous. Right? Um, it’s one of those things that people want to talk about. People want to discuss things, things, these things, because we are moving towards a more diverse, uh, society, a more longing for inclusion and community society. And if I don’t know how to, uh, understand where you are coming from, how can I create community with you?
Yeah. Then, and, and, and I, and I’m gonna say this from this perspective, if I don’t know how to create community with my white colleagues and my, uh, black colleagues, then I’m gonna feel alienated. I’m gonna feel alone at work. Yeah. And so to not give people the tools to have conversations with individuals, they may never have met before or interacted.
Yeah. You know, you’re really doing a disservice yeah. And critical race theory is not about, you know, here’s what that should look like when you engage in those conversations. Mm-hmm, , it’s more about let’s analyze our laws and, and we’re not talking laws here. So, you know, we really have to think about, are we doing a disservice?
And as someone else has said, and I forget her name. Uh, when discussing critical race theory and, and this argument, uh, that it’s bad in schools and bad for employers. When we look back, where do you wanna be in this discussion? Mm-hmm do you wanna be on the right side of this? Or do you wanna look back and say, whew, man, I wish I had not made those public station statements.
I wish I had not been the driver of that legislation. I wish I had not voted for that because now I see. That was the wrong way to go. Yeah. That was not true, you know, true forward thinking. So it’s interesting.
Larry Baker: Let me just interject and then Natasha, I’ll let you jump in because I think I have a little bit of a more sinister side to the reason why this is happening. Right? Because I study history and, and, and one of the things that I know about history, if you don’t know your history, you’re, you’re bound to repeat it. And what I believe that this is all about, and again, this is Larry Baker’s thoughts.
I think this is all about school choice. Because what I think they really want to have happen is to let parents take their tax dollars that are typically allocated to these public schools and then use it to send their child to any school that they like. But if you think about this, historically, it’s nothing new because this happened immediately after the brown versus the board of education, where those Southern states set up, what they call segregation academies.
And it’s history simply repeating itself as the ultimate goal of, well, like you said, Tahitia, they don’t really even talk about critical race theory in the stop will gap. They talk about everything around it so that they can use any vague reference to conversations about race so that they can say no, no, no, no.
I don’t want my kid to be around that. So let’s adopt school choice. So that I can take those tax dollars and we can recreate segregation academies that were so prevalent in the south. Natasha, I’ll let you jump in.
Natasha Aruliah: Yeah, this is fascinating. I mean, I think so couple of things, first of all, I’m a psychologist by training.
So my, my mind goes straight to human behavior and, and, and that kind. Sort of reasoning or, or viewpoint. And I think, you know, as everything it’s complex, so there’s many kind of pieces at play here. And I think, um, it is a red herring that people are, um, Reacting and, and loo, you know, sort of blaming critical race theory, cuz they don’t know how to frame what their discomfort and their fear, um, and the change that’s afoot.
And I, I also think there’s a piece of this that is very reactive, particularly in the us about, and this is my outsider from, from outside us looking into, um, voice that. As black lives matter movement in particular gained such power globally, not just locally, but globally. Yes. And the world was paying attention to what was happening in the us and asking.
And then you have this. Boom of books, white fragility, you know how to be an anti-racist all these, right? Um, all these people reading ly around it, the fear and the threat. Was there. And I think this backlash is in part it’s a national, it like it from it’s a group white fragility showing up. Yeah. Um, you know, it it’s that.
And so, you know, the, the language, if you look at those acts, as, as Tisia was saying was, it’s not actually about critical theory. It is actually about white fragility. Yeah. It’s about anti-racism, it’s all the language of the, the popular books and stuff. Exactly. That’s that’s kind of my view looking from the outside is there’s a national kind of white fragility moment happening in the us mm-hmm and that backlash.
Tahitia Timmons: Natasha, that was, I just wanna add into that, that, you know, it almost seemed like all of a sudden the United States, which had had… Oh, we’re so awesome. We’re wonderful. We can’t do anything wrong. All of a sudden it’s like we dropped our pants and the world looked at us and said, wow, they have a deep seated, rooted oppression of Black individuals that has not gone away. Mm-hmm and it was, we were ashamed. Uh, I wasn’t ashamed, but I know white culture here was ashamed.
Like, oh my goodness, I, I’m not racist. Cuz you heard people saying, well I’m not racist and don’t blame me for my history, but I don’t believe that’s, you know, honestly, when I look at my, like when I look at white culture and my friends who are white, I’m not sitting there going, wow, look at that racist white person.
That’s not the lens that I’m viewing them in, but there was this backlash of, oh my gosh, well, I’m not a racist. And that is not what was being said with the black lives matter, uh, uh, movement. It was look, this is who we are. And if we are gonna advocate for authenticity everywhere, this is who the us. And we have to accept it much like other countries have that have done things that they’re not proud of Germany as a clear example, but we have done things in our history and risen up on the backs of colonialism, uh, oppressions, slavery to not talk about this yeah.
Is to say, you know, It’s in the past and we’re gonna ignore it. And as Larry said, we’re not gonna learn anything. If we don’t learn from our past, you know, it’s, it’s nothing that we’re proud of here in the us, but we have to examine it so that we don’t fall back into those bad tropes.
Larry Baker: And what I think is, is what we’re all saying is that the solution isn’t about passing laws to ban these conversations. It should be a greater emphasis on how do we have them better because they’re not going away. I don’t care how you try to legislate it. It is not going away. So with that in mind, and I’m gonna start with Natasha on this question because we understand.
This CRT concept or there the, whether, whatever the actual definition of it is, it’s gonna remain a weapon that’s used, uh, in these broader attacks on these spaces to have race based conversations in the workplace. So Natasha, I’d like to get your insight on what does this mean for the work that we’re asked to do?
In de and I moving forward or in Jedi as, as, as you are, uh, focusing in on and then Tahitia I’ll have you respond to that as well?
Natasha Aruliah: Well, I mean, if, if, if successful these laws are shutting down, those potentials for conversations and as you, you know, we’ve all been saying it’s critical. We cannot move forward.
By not having the conversations and any, if you’ve done any work around conflicts theory, you’ll see that, you know, conflict ignored, like issues ignored build and build and build till they come to eruption point. Right. And so, um, the, the conversations, the dialogue is critical in being able to prevent huge eruption in the future, but actually to move forward because we are pluralistic societies.
I mean, the reality is we are getting more and more diverse and let’s be really clear that. You know, um, part of critical race theory and particularly Kimberley Crenshaw’s work was around intersectionality. Um, and recognizing the oppressions. Well, we live in a, on a planet and, and the environment cannot be separated out from, from this either.
But the environment has to be framed, not from white environment, environmentalism, but from a, a justice and equity lens, because. All of the things that are happening on the globe are gonna have an impact on our countries in particular. Um, and so that diversity is gonna be even more increased as, as migration happens.
Right. And so if we’re not prepared to. Create societies and communities. It’s not, we have to be able to coexist together. And so we are not creating the conditions by shutting down dialogue, by shutting down discussion by acknowledging difference. And, and this is where the colorblindness piece is so offensive.
Yes. People bring great treasures and wealth and riches to us when with their. And I love being who I am. I don’t want to be a man. I don’t want to have my gender ignored. I don’t want to be seen as white. I don’t want right. I am who I am and, and I bring riches as who I am. And so we’re shutting all that down.
If we, if we’re trying to not only prevent. Discussion and dialogue, but also kind of homo people kind of, you know, the, the, I, I, you know, I have to say the melting pot ideal is not one that I, I am particularly fond of. Yeah. Because we, we should be able to claim all of our identities, not just one.
Larry Baker: Yeah. Cause that melting pot is a code for assimilation, right? That’s really what it is.
Tahitia. I want you to jump in there. What do you think it means for the work that we do? If everything is going to be labeled CRT, when the reality is it’s nowhere near it, what, what, what are your thoughts?
Tahitia Timmons: So I, I honestly think that these, the, the, this type of legislation, is going to be overturned.
There’s already cases to overturn this type of legislation. We’ve seen it, uh, With federal law with Trump’s. Um, uh, and I’m, I’m blanking on. He had passed that… And that impacted, uh, strictly those who received federal funding, but those, those type, these type of laws I believe will be overturned or they won’t pass.
However, with Florida’s, uh, Woke act it is interesting that the phrasing, if you were to read it without any context or understanding behind it, um, it definitely is vague enough that written read. If you read it out of context, it sounds like good practice, right? Like it. Not do some of these things.
So that’s how I think, you know, these are getting pushed forward, but as far as our work in D&I or, or diversity and inclusion, because most workplaces focus on diversity and inclusion, as you’ve said, Natasha, not really the justice piece or the equity piece, as far as our work, I think it’s not gonna have the type of impact that we believe it will because most of the lessons.
And the moving, the, what we call the dial forward is around. Well, how can I get you thinking about, uh, what your, your group looks like in your organization? And if we start here, then we can make it more diverse. And if we create programs, then we can look at inclusion. So I, I truly believe that not a lot of organizations are leading.
Into the justice piece. And if you’re an organization that is gonna lean into the justice piece, believe me, that they are prepared for the backlash that comes from leaning into the justice piece and the equity piece. And so maybe you’re seeing some of this with some of the discussions around health equity and recognizing, especially with COVID that we had a system of oppression that put people of color.
It at a disadvantage when it came to surviving the pandemic. Um, but I don’t think that you are gonna see that type of let’s really look at this. Let’s really teach people what equity and justice looks like, which is what some of this, you know, when you talk. White fragility and other things that you’re not allowed to teach with critical race theory.
You’re not gonna have that, but I do. I do know that this is gonna impact people’s work in places like classrooms, because here’s the thing. Employees, right. I go to a training and I know there’s things that I don’t wanna bring up because I probably don’t wanna have that deeper discussion in that room.
Children have no barriers to what they say. And I’ll, I’ll tell a story about that because my son who I interracial, his father is, is white, when he was four years old, and this is how I know that we, as a species are not colorblind, he said to me, he said, are you not with daddy because he’s white? Are white and black people not allowed to be together? At four. So obviously he saw race somewhere in our world, he came up with a concept that race is a thing and race impacts how we relate to others. Yeah. And I had never said that his father had never said that. It was interesting to see a four year old, uh, have that dialogue with me.
And I said, well, why would you think that? And he said, I don’t know. It’s just like, isn’t that the way it is. I remember him saying isn’t that’s like stuff mm-hmm and he didn’t have a rationale. It was just from the environment around to him. So if you think kids are not going to ask questions about, well, why do I see this stuff on the news and what, what it, what happened with Floyd and why did that happen?
And for parents who think that kids are not going to ask their, especially in high school, uh, and, and maybe later middle school ask these difficult questions about current events then we are truly dis servicing our children because I know we’ve often interpreted the American public school system as the place where our children gain knowledge but also perspectives about the world around them. They have been socialized to have a comfort level with their teachers, similar to their parents, to see them as sources of guidance and a place to ask questions. If you shut that down, then where do students go? If they don’t feel comfortable asking that question of their parent?
Larry Baker: Yeah. So you, you bring up such an interesting point, Tahitia, because every time I hear this conversation and it focuses around, uh, kids being uncomfortable or the discomfort of kids, my main question is whose discomfort is being prioritized. Yeah. Because never once have I heard any of these individuals mention how this impacts children of.
Never once, not at one school board meeting, not at one session of, of their little press conferences, never once have I heard them mention how this impacts children of color. So whose discomfort are we really prioritizing? And if that’s not, not raised, I don’t know what is Natasha? Go ahead. Yeah.
Natasha Aruliah: Yeah, no, you’re just reminding me of story Larry.
So I’ve worked with, um, a, a school board, um, quite a lot. And there was an incident where there was, um, a hate crime. A white student sent a video around saying some really offensive, violent things towards a Black student. And the school board’s response was, you know, we’re a school, this is a teachable moment and they did all this stuff to look after the white student and did nothing for the Black student or the other students of color who witnessed it all.
Cuz the video went viral, um, and who also felt unsafe and threatened. And so, um, you know, I, I mean, I think it’s interesting. Critical race theory, um, and other critical theories talk about systems and let’s be really clear, education is a system and it is possible to create minds that are open and curious, and critical thinking and stuff.
But often education is a place to socialize and, and that’s one of the functions of assimilation is absolutely happens in education systems. And so let’s be really clear that. If we wanna bring up children who are able to adapt to the world, that they are inheriting, they need critical thinking. They need agility.
They need flexibility. Those come from dialogue across difference. They don’t come from assimilation into the main street.
Larry Baker: Absolutely. Thank you so much for that. And, and couple, one more thing before we go, because we, we are, uh, having such a great conversation and I really hate to slow this down, but I do want for each one of you to share.
Some advice that you might have for our listeners, specifically those individuals that are trying to navigate in this workplace, in these workplaces that may not be as receptive to having these dialogues. So Tahitia, I’m gonna ask that you start and then Natasha, I’m gonna give you the final word.
Tahitia Timmons: So I would advise workplaces to understand where they are in their journey and understand that we can control for so much when it comes to creating educations and trainings, but whether or not it’s written into the, the curriculum, people are gonna ask questions and people.
We’re curious by nature. So we need to be prepared to have open dialogues and open dialogues do not have constraints. So as an organization, you need to be prepared to be open, to be authentic. And to understand that though D&I does not, uh, you know, push critical race theory. We want to be able to engage in deeper dialogues if people should inquire and to put a constraint on that is to, uh, silence.
Your educators, your workplaces and your growth. We’re not gonna grow as a country if we cannot have open dialogue.
Larry Baker: Absolutely. Natasha, your advice.
Natasha Aruliah: Yeah. I, I mean, I would echo that that dialogue is the starting place and that, um, leaning into that dialogue. Um, we have to be able to sit with discomfort. We have to be able to sit with uncertainty and not knowing, um, and that I think that’s part of the issue is that people aren’t willing to be uncomfortable, but we, we have to be uncomfortable and that there’s not one truth. We can have many truths. Um, there are many realities. And so how do we hold? That’s the piece about actually valuing diversity is holding multiple truths and valuing multiple truths.
Larry Baker: Yeah. That, that, that is so amazing Natasha, because, you know, when has learning and growing ever been comfort. I mean, I cannot think of anything that I’ve ever learned that I’ve ever accomplished, that it came out of my comfort and, and that’s just the reality that we have to be willing to face. So we absolutely could have talked about this for hours and hours and hours. I know I could. And, judging, by this conversation, I know that both of you could as well, but I do wanna thank you sincerely for spending some time with us today, educating our listeners. And I just thank you for the engagement in this conversation. I think everything went extremely well.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you so much.
Tahitia Timmons: Thank you, Larry. Thank you.
Larry Baker: And to all of you that are listening, we wanna know what were your biggest takeaways from this conversation? Please share them with us on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn at Language and Culture Worldwide or LCW.